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Nobel winners highlight anti-nuclear Aboriginals

  • 16 October 2017


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?'

Similar 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