Can Superpowers Be Superheroes? How Global Superpowers Face Their Moral Debts

Photographer: Lam Yik/Bloomberg
Photographer: Lam Yik/Bloomberg

From colonization to wars and military occupations, global superpowers have a history of influencing the landscapes of foreign countries.[1] However, once these superpowers distance themselves or lose power, how should they address such a breakup? Spain sets an example with a fast track to Spanish nationality for those native to “Ibero-American” countries.[2] This requires two years of residence in Spain rather than the standard ten years for those not from a former colony.[3]Recently, as the result of a twenty year war, we have also seen the United States rally to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees.[4] Yet, if it were not for Spain’s colonial past, or the United States’ twenty year war, would either country feel such an obligation?

The same could be asked of the U.K.’s conscience as they welcome citizens of Hong Kong with their new British National Oversees (BNO) visa program.[5] This program allows Hong Kong citizens to work in the U.K. for five years, which subsequently provides a path to citizenship.[6] British Prime Minister Boris Johnson states that the purpose of the BNO visa program is to honor “profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong.”[7] These “profound ties of history” date back to the Opium Wars of 1942, where Britain gained control of Hong Kong and cultivated a prosperous economy in the process.[8] Now as China persecutes its pro-democracy citizens, the U.K. is opening their borders to those that have been exiled and tortured as a result of the shift to China’s rule. [9]

The U.K. anticipated the need to provide a backup plan for Hong Kong citizens in the Hong Kong Act of 1985 when it first created the BNO passport.[10] The BNO passport allowed Hong Kong citizens born prior to the 1997 transition of power to visit the U.K. for up to six months, but did not allow them to work or receive benefits while in the U.K.[11]Now, with China limiting Hong Kong’s freedoms, persecuting and torturing pro-democracy groups, and even pushing out organizations such as Amnesty International, the BNO passport was a catalyst for the U.K. to extricate Hong Kong citizens through their new BNO visa program.[12] While many former colonizers may not admit fault, does an olive branch of citizenship alleviate past mistakes?

Perhaps apologies on a global stage may simply take time, even for more egregious colonial rule.[13] For example, while visiting French Polynesia, French President Emmanuel Macron failed to apologize for nearly 200 nuclear tests conducted over thirty years in the small islands of the Pacific.[14] Prior to Macron’s visit, a new study revealed that France underestimated the dangers of the radioactive fallout that likely exposed 110,000 people to cancer causing particles.[15]While Macron acknowledged the study, there was still no apology.[16] However, French Polynesia does receive close to $2 billion a year from France, and France created a compensation scheme in 2010 for those exposed to the fallout.[17]

Is money enough of a remedy for the people of French Polynesia? Or will France ever face international repercussions? In 1974 South Pacific countries brought a claim against France at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for their atmospheric nuclear testing.[18] This led France to agree to stop nuclear testing—above ground.[19] In 1995 New Zealand then brought another legal challenge against France’s underground testing.[20] Because the 1995 challenge did not fall under the agreement of the 1974 case, France continued their nuclear tests until 1996.[21] It was not an ICJ ruling that persuaded France to put an end to testing in 1996, but boycotts and pressure from Scandinavian and Pacific countries.[22]

In the case of French Polynesia’s nuclear tests, it seems that international pressure was more effective than international law.[23] However, in terms of superpowers lending a hand after the damage is done, are paths to citizenship and money enough to overwrite their wrongs? Or can they do more to face their moral debts?

[1] See Power, (last visited Oct. 27, 2021)

[2] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union, and Cooperation, Spanish Nationality, (May 14, 2018),

[3] Id.

[4] See Camilo Montoya Galvez, Bo Erickson, Christina Ruffini, and Eleanor Watson, U.S. housing 20,000 Afghan evacuees in 5 states, with another 40,000 overseas, CBS News (Sept. 1, 2021),

[5] Andrew Connelly, Tens of Thousands of Hong Kongers have Applied for Special New UK Visas, The World (Aug. 11, 2021),

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Steven D. Mewha, A Tale of Two Cities: Lhasa and Hong Kong in the Shadow of Mao, 8 Penn. St. J.L. & Int’l Aff. 473, 498 (2020).

[9] See Connelly, supra note 5.

[10] Hong Kong Act 1985, c. 15, § 2(2),

[11] Hong Kong: What is the BNO and what does the UK move mean?, (May 29, 2020),

[12] Id.; see Connelly, supra note 5; Austin Ramzy, As Hong Kong’s Civil Society Buckles, One Group Tries to Hold On, (Oct. 24, 2021),

[13] See Ashley Westerman, New study on nuclear testing in French Polynesia Reveals France’s ‘censorship and secrecy’, The World (Aug. 6, 2021),

[14] Id.

[15] Id; see also Jon Henley, France has underestimated impact of nuclear tests in French Polynesia, research finds, (Mar. 9, 2021),; Adrian Cho, France grossly underestimated radioactive fallout from atom bomb tests study finds, (Mar. 11, 2021),

[16] Westerman supra note 13.

[17] Id; Marius Cardinal & Renaud Bouvet, Compensation of Victims of French Nuclear Testing, 37 MED. & L. 343, 343-44 (2018).

[18] Catherine Giraud, French Nuclear Testing in the Pacific and the 1995 International Court of Justice Decision, 1 Asia PAC. J. ENVTL. L. 125, 127 (1996).

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 128.

[21] Id. at 129, 133.

[22] Id. at 133.

[23] Id.