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Nobel winners highlight anti-nuclear Aboriginals



In 1964, upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the non-violent US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King took pains to point out the struggle was far from won: 'only yesterday in Birmingham Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death'. Why, he asked, award a movement which 'has not yet won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize?'

Susan Coleman-Haseldine at the UN: ICANSimilar questions have been raised following the awarding this month of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN — the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Why award this movement, many international journalists present at the announcement wondered, given the unsatisfactory incompleteness of the work of disarmament? Some went so far as to look for a hidden agenda, though this was strongly refuted by the Nobel committee.

One of the naysayers in Australia is the columnist Andrew Bolt. Given his ideological leanings Bolt's severe displeasure was perhaps predictable. What was shameful however, was his insulting of one of Australia's own 'nuclear survivors', the late Yankunytjatjara Elder Yami Lester. Lester, an anti-nuclear and Aboriginal rights advocate who died in July this year, was left blind following British nuclear tests in the South Australian outback in the 1950s.

Bolt refuses to believe that the life of the young stockman from Wallatina Station in South Australia's far northwest (now the APY Lands) was irretrievably changed on 'the day the earth shook'. He quoted the opinion presented to the 1984-1985 McClelland Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia by eye specialist Dr David Tonkin that Lester's blindness was 'more likely' caused by 'trachoma, measles and poor nutrition'.

This opinion remains contrary to that held by the internationally renowned eye specialist Dr Fred Hollows, whose own examination of Lester led to a total conviction that Lester's blindness was due to radiation. Even though, as Bolt points out, Lester was 175km from the nuclear epicentre, desert winds and the force of the explosion meant both Aboriginal and non Aboriginal station people and others as far away as Coober Pedy were severely affected.

Out of all the Aboriginal witnesses at the exhaustive McClelland royal commission, only a handful of them were awarded individual compensation. Edie Milpuddie, about whom the late journalist Bob Ellis wrote so movingly, was one. Yami Lester was another.

ICAN is a movement of Australian origin. It began in 2007 as a response to the difficulties in progress in disarmament by more official organisations. While indeed the work of disarmament might be 'incomplete', on 7 July this year ICAN secured a significant victory when 122 nations adopted a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; despite the nuclear weapons states and some unquestioning allies, including Australia, not participating.


"Though we live in remote Australia, we now know that everywhere they have been used world wide, nuclear weapons have devastated peoples and their lands." — Susan Coleman-Haseldine 


In their exultant reply to the Nobel Prize announcement, ICAN paid tribute firstly to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the hibakusha — and then 'to victims of nuclear test explosions around the world ... whose searing testimonies and unstinting advocacy were instrumental in securing this landmark agreement'.

As part of their campaign to present evidence to world nations, earlier this year ICAN Australia sponsored modern day Aboriginal nuclear survivors to address the UN. Among those who spoke were Karina Lester, Yami's younger daughter, and Susan Coleman-Haseldine, whose testimony in March stated:

'I was born in 1951 on Koonibba Mission. I was a small child when the British and Australian governments tested nuclear weapons in the South Australian desert near my birthplace ... Though we live in remote Australia, we now know that everywhere they have been used world wide, nuclear weapons have devastated peoples and their lands.'

That same month, 52 faith based organisations — Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim — sent their plea to 'the Australian government to support and participate in the upcoming (UN) negotiations. Let us stand together to build peace and outlaw nuclear weapons.' The Australian government failed to even attend.

So as ICAN executive director Beatrice Fihn acknowledges, 'We're not done yet ... Nuclear weapons have the risk of literally ending the world ... As long as they exist, the risk will be there, and eventually our luck will run out.' But there's encouragement to be gained from the 1964 Nobel prizewinner's speech: 'I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.'



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 38 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of South Australia and in Adelaide. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Main image: Susan Coleman-Haseldine at the UN: ICAN. Yami Lester’s full name used with permission.

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, ICAN, nuclear disarmament, Nobel Peace Prize, Aboriginal Australians



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Existing comments

ICAN's win of the Nobel Peace Prize will significantly lift its profile in the pursuit of banning nuclear weapons. Sadly, there may be scarcely a ripple in nations like North Korea, and the US. A part of the story that caught my eye was about the cause of the blindness of Yami Lester. Professor Fred Hollows, someone who spent much time treating Indigenous Australians, attributed the cause to the nuclear testing and another eye specialist, Dr David Tonkin, stated the blindness was more likely caused by 'trachoma, measles and poor nutrition'. What a sad indictment of Australia's values either cause reveals.

Pam | 16 October 2017  

This does not endear the Aussie or British governments to other nearby countries. Nuclear weapons should never be used in any military conflict.

Noeline Champion | 16 October 2017  

"Unconditional Love will have the final word." Deeply grateful for your work for Justice Sr Michele. "The Lord hears the cry of the poor and marginalised" and you are their advocate. Stand strong. Peace & All Good, Michael Campbell

Michael Campbell | 16 October 2017  

Such an important issue on many levels, and such an important article. Thanks so much Michele. I love that final sentence you quoted: I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.'

Susan Connelly | 16 October 2017  

I respect Andrew Bolt for taking up issues that many others merely ‘pussy foot’ around. However I totally disagree with his insulting mis-assessment of Yami Lester. I spent many early years in Alice Springs and the Northern Territory, and I have often considered Lester close to sainthood,

John Whitehead | 16 October 2017  

Michele, Thank you for representing the truth and unconditional love you speak of.Writing and campaigning for justice helps us all. Atomic war threatens the whole planet, and l remember well as a teenager being worried if the world would end by this threat, and it took me more years to begin planning a future, and went into survivalist mode instead. Our hope lies in disarmament.

Eve Anderson | 16 October 2017  

All strength to the First Peoples who have shone through in this and fought this mostly unrecognised. They have been disregarded, and ignored by the Australian State- yet have so much to teach us. Elders Lester (RIP) and others fought long and hard, throughout their lives, despite disability and exclusion from the table. Australia is blind to her First Peoples and their place in this land. Australia has also lost to the way for the future. Nuclear weapons are destructive as proved over and over. Accidents are inevitable -there are NO full proof safeguards, and the First Peoples tell us Uranium is best left in the ground. Yet the Australian State not only ignores their people but colludes in the nuclear armament and nuclear Industry. Read also Joseph Camilleri’s excellent article about the , historic nuclear weapons treaty which included comment about Australia's negative impacts at the negotiations leading up to the treaty being adopted. Not only did we not sign/ were absent but in fact attempted to thwart it. I also say time to walk away from subservience to USA military might and power. https://theconversation.com/as-an-historic-nuclear-weapons-treaty-is-reached-g20-leaders-miss-the-mark-on-north-korea-80464

George | 16 October 2017  

Thanks to correspondents. Pam has made a good point in that either cause is an indictment to Australia. Fred Hollows made his assertion in his autobiography - certainly after he had enormous experience in Australia and overseas as an eye specialist. At his funeral at Wallatina Station, the message was conveyed that Yami Lester wanted his photo and full name to go on. His older daughter Rose made the point to me recently that Dr Tonkin's opinion was made in the days when there was no official interpreting. On October 15, 1953 that first British bomb 'test' in mainland Australia set off at the Emu Field site became known as the 'Black Mist.' Jessie Lennon's family were on opal at the time at the Twelve Mile opal fields out of Coober Pedy. Her autobiography records the 'smoke and bluish smoke rolled over us, come over us from wilurara- west' and then their immediate sickness - the family fled to Port Augusta. ICAN makes the point that land mines, cluster munitions and biological and chemical weapons have to date all been banned but to date not nuclear weapons.

Michele Madigan | 16 October 2017  

As a nation we seem to be increasingly depressed, lacking hope for any real change and therefore hardly able to get out of bed to work for it. Are we actually suicidal? We certainly put a lot of time into finding excuses for killing. Or does this award represent a tiny seed of hope that may yet blossom? If it does, it hasn't been planted by our secular government, but by the One who promises us Life, if we choose to take it.

Joan Seymour | 16 October 2017  

“122 nations adopted a UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons….” Two of these are North Korea and Iran whose shenanigans seem to go against the spirit of adopting the treaty. Perhaps the other 120 should ask them what they think they are doing.

Roy Chen Yee | 16 October 2017  

Michele, well spoken ! ICAN deserves all the praise it can get for the wonderful, sustained commitment working to ban Nuclear Armaments. If only our Australian Government would see the International risks and sign the Treaty. Do we deserve such a short sighted Government ? People Power must stand up!

Gabrielle Travers | 16 October 2017  

dear Roy Chen Yee, I have checked. North Korea didn't attend, haven't adopted the treaty and haven't signed it. Iran did attend and did adopt the treaty but as you say haven't yet signed. Just over 50 countries have taken the further step and signed so far.

Michele Madigan | 16 October 2017  

Thanks Sister Michele for a great article touching on so much that will resonate with every ethically-positive person. Our hopes for global eradication of nuclear weapons would be more realistic if we forbade those who would be responsible for initiating nuclear conflagration from having deep bunkers where they and their loved ones can escape the common fate. Why is this 'hot topic' not pursued in our world media??? Another positive step would be to campaign for UN and world-leadership to be placed in the hands of nations who never go to war - e.g. Bhutan, Switzerland, Namibia, Iceland, Jamaica, Greenland, Paraguay, etc. And, from Australia? - some of our amazing Aboriginal and Torres-Straits Islander peace-makers. As long as world leadership remains in the hands of war-monger chauvinist, bully-boy brinkmen we'll all continue to live under the threat of "going simultaneous in an incandescent glow", as Tom Lehrer put it. I'm sure there are other concrete steps that we ordinary people might contemplate to help preserve ourselves from becoming mere cannon-fodder.

Dr Marty Rice | 16 October 2017  

Thanks to Sr Michele for another insightful article about Aboriginal people. She raises some very important issues about the British nuclear tests in outback SA. I don't think enough work has been done to accurately ascertain how badly Aboriginal communities were affected by these tests . Originally, one jeep was to be sent out to an area as large as the British Isles to warn communities of the impending tests. Many of those involved protested at the inadequacy of this, so 2 jeeps were sent. Warning signs in English were erected, but not all these people understood it. It is thought that many Aborigines perished from radiation exposure and others starved because they were cut off from their food sources. An excellent documentary film about the tests and the history of uranium in Australia is Backs to the Blast. it looks at what happened to the Anangu people who lived in Maralinga when the 1950 British tests were carried out. Yami Lester was featured as were some other Aboriginal people. The film also included an interview with Sir Ernest Titterton , professor of nuclear physics at the ANU, who was the radiation safety officer for the tests and later a strong advocate for the uranium industry. It revealed that very little was done to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people on Emu Plains or the Australian personnel involved. Another film that indicates the health dangers to peoples living in areas where nuclear weapons are tested is the 1985 film Half Life – A Parable of the Nuclear Age produced by Australian film maker Dennis O’Rourke. It is about the US tests carried out on the Bikini Atoll, Micronesia in the 1950s. There were better records kept of theses tests because US scientists knowingly exposed the Micronesians to high levels of radiation and then monitored their declining health for several years. It is obvious that great crimes against humanity were committed against the Anangu people, the Micronesians, the Pacific Islanders near the French tests and Americans living in areas of the test sites in the US.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 17 October 2017  

There were Australian and British servicemen near the Maralinga test site who made claims that they were affected. Like Yami Lester their claims were initially pooh poohed and knocked back. Many/most would be dead now. Maralinga was about as far as possible from the British Isles (except possibly NZ and Antarctica) and 'virtually uninhabited'. Indigenous Australians obviously did not matter as much to the MOD as the tests. The then Australian government went supinely along. The possession of nuclear weapons seems to have a 'Holy Grail' significance to those who possess them or wish to. Of course a modern nuclear war, of the sort North Korea is threatening to launch against the US, would be horrific. In this crazy world Pope Francis' gentle exhortation to pray may possibly be the only thing standing between us and nuclear conflagration. Of course Francis does a lot more than pray or ask for prayer. I suspect many other world leaders would consider him an impractical simpleton. He and those like him provide a ray of sanity in a mad world. I do not think him impractical nor do I think the prayers don't work. They might, literally, save us.

Edward Fido | 17 October 2017  

Giving the address at our local annual Harvest celebrations in Letterkenny Church of Ireland I mentioned the Nuclear situation. As an 8 year old I heard the broadcast of the first atomic test bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16 1945. I was fiddling about with our house radio and came across it by chance. Never forgot it. I write a weekly article in a local paper and I'll mention your post. Gradh mor agus meas mor..Brian Smeaton.

Brian Smeaton | 17 October 2017  

Thank you Michele for bringing this issue to a wider audience. God bless you for your commitment.

Margaret Lamb | 17 October 2017  

Let us trust the testimony of those in the vicinity of the fall out from the British nuclear testing in the 50s. Both my maternal and paternal family lived on the opal fields and north of Coober Pedy and suffered the consequences of what was experienced as a ‘blackmist’. My paternal family were on Mabel Creek station and maternal family lived at the eight mile, north of Coober Pedy. My family were not warned of any danger and it was only in hindsight that they knew why the British service men wore protective clothing while travelling through the country. My father’s sister told me that the particles of the black dust was so fine they were removing 'it' from their noses and ears over a 'long' time. From a small child I recall the stories of the "black mist" that came across the country and the subsequent skin erosions, nausea and other health problems in the community. My own father died in 1956 and I do wonder if the fall out of the radiation resulted in his death. He was camping out away, from the homestead, and hence may have been more vulnerable to radiation poisoning. Prior to the testing he was 25 years old and had no health problems. While there is no actual evidence what precipitated my father's death there is the compelling evidence from the eminent Dr Fred Hollows, Please heed the words of Susan Coleman-Haseldine to the UN. We can no longer plead ignorance!

Kenise Neill | 17 October 2017  

Thank you, Michele, for raising a Josephite voice to celebrate ICAN's win. How easy it is to disregard the suffering caused by the nuclear explosion at Maralinga! Let us hope and pray that we may live on a planet free of nuclear armaments. We have enough horrific experience to guide us to choose alternate pathways towards peace and international justice.

Genevieve Ryan | 17 October 2017  

I have read this and other of your articles, Michele and been impressed because you talk with real knowledge of and commitment to your ministry, not as the opinionati do. Brown Joeys often minister at the Sharp End of Christian witness to the world. I was impressed that you have no website of your own saying how wonderful you are, as many self-anointed present day 'saviours' do. The Aboriginal women you work with would regard you as a real sister, I imagine. Nuclear weapons are diabolical.Their testing brings only injury,damage and death. Aboriginal people, who have been here for thousands of years.Their Creation Stories may be different in detail from the Judaeo-Christian ones, but the Creation Theme and the Sacredness of All Creation would underlie both. The Christianity you espouse is a bridging one. You have built bridges between cultures. Jesus was no mere intellectual, playing with ideas but achieving little in the real world of dusty highways and suffering people. He came to save the world. Nuclear weapons could destroy that world, which is a Sacred Creation.

Edward Fido | 19 October 2017  

For the record Edward, several days later, my main attribute is mainly that I know some of the people. Thanks to them. Good last line of yours. It's the Aboriginal speakers at gatherings and rallies about protecting country in SA who speak of God's creation. Privileged to have an Irishman make a comment and pass on the word. Appreciation to all correspondents

Michele Madigan | 31 October 2017  

Great article Michele. A follow up to your article with great visual is a documentary by Jess Boylan. Her documentary on Maralinga interviews the scientists and local Aboriginal People. Between 1952 and 1963 the British Government performed highly secretive nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia and on the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. A total of twelve major nuclear tests were performed, and up to 700 minor ‘dirty’ trials were also conducted. The area was massively contaminated with radioactive materials and cleanups were attempted in 1967 and 2000. However, examinations after these cleanups found that many of these sites still remain radioactive. Shot on location at Maralinga in 2011, this short film takes the viewer through a haunting landscape of the places these bombs were exploded, as well as extracts snippets of memories of Aboriginal elders and an Australian nuclear veteran, whose lives have been deeply impacted by these tests. ://jessieboylan.com/maralinga-pieces/

Patricia | 09 November 2017  

Add more: An interview with Yami Lester and Kevin Buzzacotton about their experience on nuclear testing in South Australia broadcast on 24 September 2011: 'Remembering Maralinga and Emu Field: between 1953-1963 the British and Australian governments were testing atomic weapons in South and Western Australia. Many Aboriginal people and atomic veterans are still suffering the physical and psychological effects of these tests. We hear from Avon Hudson, Maralinga atomic veteran, Yami Lester, atomic survivor, and uncle Kevin Buzzacott, on their experience of the nuclear tests in the 50s and 60s in Australia'. File Download (30:10 min / 21 MB) 17 September 2011: This edition we hear voices from the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance meeting held in Alice Springs from September 09-11, 2011. Representatives from Aboriginal communities and from Environment groups concerned about the impacts of uranium developments came together to share information and stories of how to protect communities and the land from the growing nuclear industry in Australia. File Download (30:06 min / 21 MB) These interviews are by Jessie Boylan. She has been a producer with The Radioactive Show (3CR) for five years. The Radioactive Show is an anti-nuclear program with up-to-date news and information on nuclear, peace and energy issues. It features interviews, news updates and on-the-spot action reports, with music breaks and insights from the presenters. The producers of the show are committed anti-nuclear activists with wide national and international experience. The Radioactive Show has been broadcast on Community Radio 3CR at the Saturday morning time slot for over 20 years. This program is also broadcast to stations around Australia through the Community Radio Network, the satellite service of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, on Thursday evening at 18:04.

Patricia | 09 November 2017  

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