Maralinga compo collapse prompts calls for Act of Grace

Aboriginal people exposed to British nuclear tests in South Australia during the 1950s are being told they have no hope of compensation.

Aboriginal people exposed to British nuclear tests in South Australia during the 1950s are being told they have no hope of compensation.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Aboriginal people exposed to British nuclear tests in South Australia during the 1950s are being told they have no hope of compensation.

A British law firm says their cases cannot proceed because medical science cannot conclusively prove that fallout from the tests made people sick.

But while legal arguments may not prevail, pressure for a settlement on moral grounds is growing.

It's pressure that the UK government is so far resisting, as Karen Ashford reports.

"Ten seconds to go, 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, 0. Blast. The mighty power of the atom is unleashed."

It began in 1953 at a site called Emu, and continued until 1963 at Maralinga.

UK servicemen, Australian soldiers and civilians, including Indigenous people, all exposed to radiation as a result of British atomic weapons testing in South Australia's outback.

British firm Hickman and Rose had hoped to represent more than 150 civilians, if a huge class action by 1000 British veterans had succeeded.

But the class action was blocked - the UK Supreme Court ruling that 60 years after the event their claims were too late, the causes of their illnesses apparently unprovable.

Now Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement lawyer Christopher Charles finds himself the bearer of bad tidings, tasked with conveying the decision to people who were hoping for better.

"The advice that ALRM has received is that the present state of medical knowledge from the English experts is the link between ionising radiation and the illnesses that people might have suffered could not be proven to the satisfaction of the legal requirements in terms of getting a case up into the court."

Hickman and Rose has prepared a DVD explaining the decision, and it, along with letters are being delivered to traditional owners like Yami Lester.

"I feel very disappointed. We thought we had a chance with the British government, but Hickman and Rose sent me a letter saying they couldn't go on with it, because the British reckon it was a long time ago it happened, 1953, that we were too late."

Mr Lester remembers when the Totem 1 test at Emu field sent acrid black smoke across his home at Wallatinna, near Marla on the southern APY lands.

It was one of the last things he saw, as shortly after he went blind.

The nearest clinic was 160 kilometres away, camels the only transport, rendering medical attention impossible.

Mr Lester says the lack of treatment then has had another terrible cost - no medical records from the time to support his case today.

"We had a skin rash, sore eyes, diarrhoea, vomiting and a lot of people got sick, and we couldn't prove that, because we never had doctors."

It's not just Yami Lester's generation who believe they've fallen victim - his eldest daughter Rose has an auto-immune disease.

Her gnarled hands struggle to put up an anti-nuclear poster from her beloved grandmother, who after years of struggle, died on the eve of the UK legal decision.

Rose Lester says the Maralinga clean up didn't extend to her family's lands and she fears for the contamination that may continue today.

"Is that poison active on that country now? Is it too dangerous for me to take my kids out there? I need to know those questions. Just from my experience and what's happened to me I'm not prepared to take my kids back there for a lengthy period of time, so that's lost, they've lost that connection."

Potential claimants are aggrieved by the fact that the dangers of exposure to radiation are widely known, yet it's not an argument that the UK Courts will accept - the British Ministry of Defence successfully arguing that illnesses could have been caused by factors other than its tests.

The UK foreign secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond have been visiting Australia for bilateral talks - and a legal advocate for South Australia's Indigenous communities Patrick Byrt has a clear message.

"I think it's monstrous that William Hague should come here, seeking better relations in the Commonwealth with the support of Australia, and utterly ignore the plight of the Aboriginal descendants alive today and those who've passed on, who have been impacted directly by the British atomic testing at Maralinga and elsewhere."

The Australian Greens' nuclear spokesman Scott Ludlam says the dangers of radiation are well known and it's unfair to ask Aboriginal people with scant medical records to prove a direct link between exposure to fallout and subsequent sickness.

Senator Ludlam says legalities aside, Britain should do what's morally right, by way of an Act of Grace - a discretionary payment to remedy the suffering he says is evident.

"The British courts have blocked the application from Defence personnel and Aboriginal people in central Australia by saying you can't prove those radiations exposures are what caused your illness. Now, we know that ionising radiation is harmful for health - we know that for a fact. The right thing for the British Government to do is make an Act of Grace payment to the people who they injured in their nuclear weapons tests."

It's a matter he wants Foreign Minister Bob Carr to take up with the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague.

"I'd like our Foreign Minister Bob Carr to raise the same issue. This is unfinished business. It's a shrinking number of people and their families, and the reason that I'm writing to Mr Hague is to make a direct plea to him, and through him to the British government, to take care of this unfinished business and look after the people whose lives have been damaged."

It's a sentiment echoed by Rose Lester.

"They should set up a fund so that people - families and widows and the next generation that may come into trouble having genetic imperfections or sickness and ill health can access that money during that time of illness or for when they have to bury a person."

The pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and Britain remains firm in its opposition to any form of payment.

UK Defence secretary Philip Hammond has rejected the calls for an out of court goodwill settlement, and says legal avenues have been exhausted too.

"The chain of causality is not there able to be demonstrated at this stage and the courts have ruled that the claim is inadmissible. As far as I'm aware there is no other mechanism at the moment available to those claimants."

But not everyone agrees.

There's been robust debate about the legal options in indigenous circles, with suggestions that arguments around negligence and duty of care could still be pursued.

Patrick Byrt says while the potential for new evidence exists, the case should not be regarded as over.

"As recently as today I've had information relayed to me directly by a descendant that his eye has been irradiated - he had failed to understand the significance of this direct medical advice from an ophthalmologist, there is a case for Britain to answer in relation to radionuclide dispersal, ingestion, inhalation and absorption by Aboriginal people. In those circumstances, this case will never be closed."

But the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement's legal Director Christopher Charles says the case is closed.

"There are very clear directions from the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement board that we're not to proceed to do anything more with this work, we cannot, we have got to deal with our priorities around our legal aid program, as I've said to you, the concern of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement board at this stage is to ensure that there is a proper sense of closure."

There's no sense of closure for Rose Lester.

She finds it hard to forgive the UK, and has little faith that Indigenous injury will ever be compensated.

"Disappointment and then anger comes out when you think, you know, of the injustice of this, complete injustice towards those that are affected, and I just thought it was typical. This is typical of the British Empire, just yet another act of injustice that they've done to our people in this country, and I just thought it was typical."

She says the UK doesn't want attention focused on radioactive fallout beyond the indigenous lands, stretching south to Adelaide and east to Lismore, for fear of the scale of potential claims against it.

The report of the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia contains amongst its evidence a series of maps showing varying levels of radioactive fallout from tests across mainly eastern and southern Australia.

Rose Lester says aged and ill claimants believe that as they die, Britain will bury the issue with them.

"So they've had lawyers working hard on stopping this, and I just, yeah, it's what they want at the end of the day, they're trying to achieve that, is not to get that generation into the court room, and then it's dead and buried and gone and hopefully just sweep it under the carpet and forget about that history."

Source SBS

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