Status: Open

Interview with the fourth President of Kiribati (1994-2003), the Permanent Representative of Kiribati to the UN, Ambassador Teburoro Tito

The NPT Review Conference is one of those international platforms that allows representatives of various countries to directly express their position and opinion. What do you think about a voice from Oceania? PIR Center Deputy Director Elena Karnaukhova managed to talk to the fourth President of the Republic of Kiribati, Ambassador Teburoro Tito (1994-2003), now the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kiribati to the UN.

In this interview, in the rubric “Notes from the Field: 10th NPT Review Conference through the Eyes of Russian Public Diplomacy”, we talked about the impressions of the representative of Kiribati on the 10th NPT RevCon, the today’s echoes of colonialism and imperialism, the role of nuclear weapons in Oceania and in the world, the TPNW and the NPT, the UN armed forces, the AUKUS factor, the prospects for cooperation between Russia and Kiribati, and also learned about Ambassador Tito’s personal philosophy and why the word “love” is written on his tie.

Your Excellency, Ambassador, share with us your impressions about how the X NPT Review Conference is going on. You are actively participating in the sessions of the Main Committees and are speaking at the side-events panel discussions. How do you assess the atmosphere of the X NPT RevCon? In your opinion, will the final document of the Conference be adopted?

The Conference is going on very actively, but there are so many contradictions between the states that the adoption of the final document is unlikely from my point of view. Most countries do nothing but turn the arrows on each other. So why? Because no one likes to admit their mistakes and prefers to blame the other to seem better. Another problem of the current NPT RevCon is the political bias of some Chairmen of the Main Committees. They do not take a neutral position but protect Western-oriented approaches. This should not happen within an international platform, the purpose of which is to ensure global security. The world has changed, and it is not entirely correct to tell other countries how to be better and what to do in general.

Sounds like echoes of imperialism. I think Kiribati feels it as well. For a long time, your country was a colony of the British Empire. Tell us how it was. Does your country is still facing any negative consequences from the colonial past?

Yes, Kiribati was a colony of the British Empire. The British came to us and said: “We are here to ensure your security, because otherwise you will fall under the control of the French. We will help you to avoid it and protect you”. So, we became a colony of Great Britain. The British colonial authorities always dictated to us what to do. But we were able to benefit from belonging to the British Empire. Otherwise, we would all have been slaughtered by the Japanese or Koreans. They behaved very aggressively in the XIX-XX centuries. The years of World War II and Japanese aggression only proved this thesis. At the end of the 1970s, we embarked on the path of independent development. But we have been periodically dictated what to do. This should not happen in the modern world.

In the second half of the XX century, the United Kingdom and the United States conducted nuclear tests on the territory of Kiribati. Tell us about this part of your history in more details. How did the people of Kiribati perceive the nuclear tests? What consequences did they lead to?

I remember when I was small, I was swimming in the sea with friends. And then I noticed a flash of bright light. Nearby, some thousand miles away, the Anglo-Saxons tested nuclear weapons. This outburst really impressed me. The people of Kiribati were calm about nuclear tests as we were told that nuclear weapons were needed to ensure our security. We thought we were contributing to an important cause because for us these times nuclear weapons served as a guarantee of security and protection.

So, you justify the existence of nuclear weapons, am I right to understand you? If someone attacked you now, would it be right to request the use of nuclear weapons against the aggressor?

Americans carried out the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it helped to stop the Japanese, they were extremely aggressive. But after 1945 the world changed hopefully. The UN appeared; its Charter was adopted. We have Chapter 6 of the UN Charter, and it calls on us to solve all international problems by pacific means. In such conditions, there is no sense in the existence of nuclear weapons, and they must be abolished and eliminated. Nuclear powers have always said: “Nuclear weapons are necessary for our security”. But how many nuclear tests were conducted in different parts of the world in XX century! Nuclear testing has to be banned definitively; it is very important to entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Why do you want to test nuclear weapons – for your security or for your own glory and greatness? Or to destroy us all?

You are asking me what we would do if someone attacked us. There are no armed forces in our country, as you know, and in ensuring our security we rely on the gods in whom we believe, and on the forces of nature to whom we trust. We believe that nature itself can protect us. Hurricanes, floods, etc., many things can protect us, most importantly, our faith. Nuclear weapons are evil. We must live in peace, love and harmony. Please note that Chapter 6 of the UN Charter uses the word pacific, not peaceful. The Pacific region just gives an example to the global community that we all need peace and calmness. It seems to me that this is our role of the Pacific countries to call for peace, for love, for respect for each other. Now we are facing the lack of all those things.

You support nuclear disarmament and the elimination of nuclear weapons. Many are discussing these issues, but it is not so easy and simple to eliminate nuclear weapons. It seems to me that everyone has somehow forgotten that Article 6 of the NPT calls us to complete and general disarmament but not only to nuclear one. So, it is necessary to abandon not only nuclear weapons, but also conventional weapons. But how can we talk about disarmament now at all, if the United States is holding leading position in spending on military needs and is constantly increasing them, and at the same time China is modernizing and building up its military potential to counterbalance the United States?

This is a very difficult question. Indeed, we should strive to abandon armaments in principle. Kiribati has no armed forces, as I have already said. I believe that only the UN should have armed forces.

But then we again will touch upon the issue of impartiality and neutrality of positions. Who will these UN international armed forces report to? And what if they are managed by a not politically impartial person?

The UN management should be absolutely neutral. UN is an international organization representing the interests of all the mankind. If such armed forces are created, then they should be led by a neutral person with politically unbiased position who knows how to smooth out contradictions. But we should pay attention to the problem of nuclear disarmament, despite the failure of this process in previous years, we must raise this problem, because otherwise everyone will forget about the obligation to build a world without nuclear weapons. Another problem is that we are unlikely to be able to give up weapons in general because this will harm the interests of corporations which are developing new weapons and earning huge amount of money. Armaments are the most profitable business for those who want to get rich. Would a person refuse money? I am sure the thirst for profit and greed will not allow.

Your country is a state party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Do you really believe that it is possible to get rid of nuclear weapons and that this Treaty will help boost and get progress in nuclear disarmament? Could TPNW have a negative impact on the NPT review process?

Sure, we are a state party to the TPNW, and we strongly believe that the international community needs this Treaty. I do not see any prerequisites for the fact that the TPNW will undermine the position of the NPT. The main goal of the TPNW is to show that most countries of the world are ready to say: “That’s enough, that’s it, it’s time to give up nuclear weapons”. This is just a way to attract the attention of the nuclear five. But do not think that TPNW will harm the NPT.

When we were preparing the text of our interview, representatives of the Republic of Kiribati said on August 22 that your country would withdraw from the NPT. How can you comment on it? 

The decision to pull out is not mine, it’s the President and the Cabinet of the Republic of Kiribati based on my recommendation which in turn depends on my observations of how committed are the nuclear weapon states to the ultimate goal of a world completely free of nuclear weapons beginning with a sincere acknowledgment in the outcome document of the X NPT RevCon of the nuclear harm inflicted upon human life health and well-being and on the natural environment upon which humans rely and the need to address such serious issues.

But don’t you think that TPNW, firstly, is full of idealism, and, secondly, is somewhat incorrect in several provisions. What do you think about the thesis of disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on girls and women? As a representative of the country where the nuclear tests took place, it does not seem to you that such provisions are incorrect and unfair to men. Firstly, nuclear weapons are gender neutral: if they are used, it will not happen that all women will die, and men will continue to exist. Secondly, the experience of Japan after atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Yugoslavia after the American bombing with depleted uranium and many Pacific countries exposed to nuclear tests demonstrates that men are also exposed to radiation and face negative consequences.

The main idea of the TPNW is to call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Their existence has no sense, there are only risks from which no one will benefit. I cannot say that I agree with this provision about the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on girls and women, but I see no point in arguing about this provision. The main thing is that we have this Treaty. Gender approaches to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament are very popular. Yes, it is controversial, speculative, and politically biased. We should not forget that there is always a man and a woman, they should be together. If you have other preferences, no problem. But what difference does it make how many genders we have when we discuss certain treaties and international problems? This is all too personal; this is an aspect of private life. For international law, all people are equal.

Of course, not only women suffer from nuclear tests, but all mankind will die from nuclear weapons, your gender will not play any role for nuclear weapons and nuclear wars. I personally faced the consequences of nuclear tests myself: some of my relatives, by the way, men, died of cancer. Many women in Kiribati were unable to give birth to children as they had problems during pregnancy, during the birth of children. Our water and food were also contaminated after the British and American nuclear tests. The mortality rate from cancer was very high.

You told me that it was necessary to create international armed forces under the auspices of the UN, promote nuclear disarmament and abandon nuclear weapons. What do you think about military-political alliances? How will the creation of AUKUS affect the security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region? How does the Pacific region perceive the appearance of this defense pact between the three Anglo-Saxon countries, and can AUKUS negatively affect the Rarotonga Treaty on a nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific?

In my view, alliances like NATO are echoes of the past. In my opinion, during the Soviet-American Cold War, NATO had the meaning of its existence. But times are changing, and now such alliances are not needed. As for AUKUS, it is completely unclear to me why three countries decide for others who threatens them and how to ensure their security and protection. This is a kind of new imperialism as we discussed with you previously. Just recall what British colonists used to tell us. Now, fortunately, we live in a different world. You cannot dictate to other countries who to be afraid of and how to deal with threats. We will deal with this by our own.

China is the lion which is not so fierce as it is painted. Now the idea that China is the № 1 threat for everyone is being actively spread in the media. It’s all policy, and for me this view is not correct. We are not afraid of China and do not believe that it behaves aggressively. We are not going to be friends with the Americans against the Chinese or vice versa, we are sort of in the middle, between them, working with both sides, not making preferences, and not giving preferences. Now we are actively consulting with representatives of the Anglo-Saxon countries that are members of AUKUS to better understand this military pact association. But once again, I do not understand why a narrow group of countries gathers in a closed format and decides the fate of our region. If you think that something threatens us, invite us, please, we will discuss everything and figure out what to do. In the modern world, you cannot decide for others and think that only your point of view is the only true one.

It would be interesting to know your opinion on the reform of the UN, in particular, on the expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council.

I don’t think in such radical categories. For me, the most important thing is that everyone’s interests are taken into account.

I hear from you all the time withing the X NPT RevCon that you want to help to ensure peace all over the world and do everything to promote the ideas of humanity, universal love and trust. What exactly are you doing? Is this your personal philosophy or did your ancestors have the same ideas?

I was born and lived all my life in Kiribati. I was the 4th president of the Republic, and I always held such views no matter what I was doing. My country is located in the Pacific region. The very name of our region proves that our countries and territories appeared in this world to promote the ideas of peace. Pacific… Just listen to this word. You have already noticed my tie and what is written on it – “Love”. I believe that my job now is to promote love. It is necessary to love and respect each other, to be able to hear each other, this is very important.

What do you think about Russia? What prospects do you see for cooperation with our country?

We are cooperating with Russia, but not actively, from my perspective. There is interaction, for example, in the field of fishing. Kiribati is a wonderful country in terms of developing cooperation in the sphere of tourism. But I believe that we need to work closely together to solve burning international problems. There are really few negotiations between us. It would be a good idea to boost dialogue. We would be so happy if Russians will come to Kiribati more often. You should come as well. You personally definitely need to visit our country, maybe with beloved one, just not to discuss global security issues because it is very romantic atmosphere in Kiribati.

Thank you, dear Ambassador. I accept your invitation with pleasure, and it is my dream to visit the Pacific region, Oceania islands. Concluding our interview, I would like to ask you the following group of questions. How do you assess the current development of the world order? We have been talking for several decades about the easternization of our world and about the shift of global power and influence to the Asia-Pacific region. Asian countries are rising. But why do Western-oriented approaches still dominate? Information sphere is the best example of it. Why do some countries allow themselves to impose their will on the majority?

This brings us back to the conversation about imperialism. Western imperialism has not gone anywhere at all, we continue to see it in new forms. Let’s be honest: we still mostly speak English; it remains the lingua franca. Language is a very important resource in terms of possession of minds. Of course, the world is developing, new centers of power are emerging, but the power of the West has been not yet a thing of the past, even if it changes its forms. This is the philosophy of Western, primarily Anglo–Saxon countries to think that they know best what to do and how everyone should develop. I think our world is beautiful, it should be beautiful. All countries, nuclear and non-nuclear, we all need to sit down and think about what is really important in our lives. For me, the most important thing is to work for the benefit of my family, friends and loved ones.