Tony de Brum & the People of the Marshall Islands

(2015, Marshall Islands)
Honorary Award

...in recognition of their vision and courage to take legal action against the nuclear powers for failing to honour their disarmament obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law.

About

Tony de Brum has dedicated a lifetime of public service in pursuit of an independent, secure and sustainable Marshall Islands, and he has courageously advanced his peoples’ vision of world free of nuclear weapons. Having witnessed the deleterious effects of US nuclear tests in his country as a young boy, Tony de Brum, as Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, took the unprecedented step of filing lawsuits against all nine nuclear weapons states in the International Court of Justice in 2014, seeking to hold them to account for their failure to abide by the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and customary international law. As architect of the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership, adopted in September 2013, Tony de Brum has also been instrumental in securing the commitment of Pacific Island States to adopt concrete measures to combat climate change.

Contact Details

Tony de Brum
Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
P.O. Box 1349
Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960

Biography

Negotiating the independence of the Marshall Islands

Tony de Brum was born in 1945 and grew up in a time when the United States conducted 67 atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands. As a nine-year-old, he witnessed the ‘Bravo shot’ at Bikini Atoll, the largest-ever US nuclear test that produced an explosion 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Following his graduation from university in 1968, de Brum became the Marshall Islands’ prime negotiator with the United States, serving as Vice Chairman of the Marshall Islands Status Commission. In this role, he led the drafting of the Marshall Islands constitution and advocated annually before the UN Security Council to grant the Marshall Islands full independence. De Brum’s persistent efforts were rewarded when the US and the Marshall Islands signed the Compact of Free Association in 1986.

Following independence, de Brum has had a long and distinguished political career, serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs (on three separate occasions, most recently since 2014), Minister of Finance, Minister of Health and the Environment and Minister-in-Assistance to the President. In addition to his ministerial duties, he has also as a long serving parliamentarian lent support to a range of social causes, in 2011 playing a key role in securing the passage of a law designed to prevent domestic violence that had been championed by civil society.

The Nuclear Zero Lawsuits

Convinced that no nation should suffer the lethal effects of nuclear weapons as the Marshall Islands have, de Brum as Foreign Minister in April 2014 filed landmark cases in the International Court of Justice against the nine nuclear weapon states – China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK and USA – for their failure to negotiate in good faith towards global nuclear disarmament as required by the NPT and customary international law. To date, India, Pakistan and UK have accepted the court’s jurisdiction to hear this matter, and court proceedings are on-going and expected to take two or three years. In these cases, popularly known as the “Nuclear Zero lawsuits”, Marshall Islands do not ask for compensation for past damages. Instead, the relief requested is for the Court to hold the nuclear power states in breach of their obligations related to nuclear disarmament, and to order them to, within a year of the judgment, take all steps necessary to comply with those obligations, including the pursuit of negotiations aimed to conclude a convention on nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control.

In addition to these cases, de Brum also filed a separate lawsuit against the United States in the US District Court of California seeking to compel the US to negotiate in good faith towards nuclear disarmament. In February 2015, the US District Court dismissed the lawsuit on the technical grounds that it could not force the US government to negotiate an international agreement. Undeterred, de Brum intends to appeal the judgment to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

He is steadfast in pursuing this legal struggle to its conclusion, convinced that it is an important step forward in realising the Marshall Islanders’ desire for all people around the world to live free of the nuclear weapons threat hanging over humanity. For this work, de Brum was honoured with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 2012 Distinguished Peace Leader Award, and he is being recognised with the “Nuclear Free Future Award” in October 2015.

Demonstrating leadership and taking action in the face of climate change

Acutely concerned about the existential threat that climate change presents to the survival of Marshall Islands and other Pacific Islands states, Tony de Brum is a leading international voice working in coalition with allies to influence the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 to adopt binding measures to limit the global rise in temperature to 2 degrees from pre-industrial levels. Persistent in promoting the benefits of an accelerated transition to the low-carbon economy, he brings an impressive track record of leadership and action on the issue of climate change, with Marshall Islands supplying 95% of its far-flung outer islands’ households and public facilities with solar energy. De Brum has also become the world’s leading voice for the transformational potential of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) technology.

In February 2013, Tony de Brum addressed the UN Security Council on the security implications of climate change, including the threats posed to the territorial integrity and long-term viability of Pacific small island states. In September 2013, he initiated a process involving experts and policymakers of the Pacific Islands Forum, which culminated in the adoption of the ground-breaking Majuro Declaration on Climate Leadership. The Declaration stresses the responsibility of all to act urgently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and confirms the Pacific Islands Forum’s climate leadership by listing ambitious commitments to reduce emissions and transition to renewable, clean and sustainable energy sources. The Marshall Islands have presented the Majuro Declaration as a “Pacific gift” to the UN Secretary-General to strengthen his efforts to secure a universal, ambitious and binding climate change agreement.

Speeches

Right Livelihood Award Acceptance Speech

(Please note that the full-text version of the speech may differ from the speech delivered during the Award Ceremony)

30 November 2015

It is an honour to accept this award – not just on behalf of my family, but for all Marshallese people. I have served the global community as a “nuclear witness” – urging the fulfillment of justice because I know with my own experience the devastating impacts of nuclear weapons, and why the world must work meaningfully towards their elimination. Political challenges in the elimination of nuclear weapons are just that – challenges, barriers and issues which can and must be overcome by ethical political will. But such challenges must not be mere excuses for inaction. 

Decades after the non-proliferation treaty, decades after the world experienced heightened threats of the Cold War, and decades after the conclusion of devastating nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, I might be branded by some as a radical for my impassioned conviction against the use, testing or possession of nuclear weapons. But this is not radical – it is only logical. How can it be radical to suggest that the very legal commitment already undertaken to end nuclear weapons must be fulfilled?

And this plea to the world is not only on behalf of my country but also myself – I am a personal witness. In ways that so few others know – I have seen with my very own eyes such devastation and know with conviction that nuclear weapons must never again be visited upon humanity. This is not just an issue of treaty commitments or international law, though it is that, and not just an issue of ethics or morality, though it is that too, but this is an issue of common sense – how could any one common person walking down the street ever permit the possession or use of such weapons? 

For the Marshallese – and myself – we know better, and we have reason to know better. Between 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted 67 large scale nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. That is the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima shots, every day, for 12 years. Every single day for 12 years.

These nuclear tests were conducted during the Marshall Islands time as a United Nations Trust Territory — and many of these actions were taken, despite specific Marshallese objections, under UN Trusteeship Resolutions 1082 and 1493, adopted in 1954 and 1956. Those resolutions remain the only specific instances in which the United Nations has ever explicitly authorized the use of nuclear weapons. 

These tests are not historical incidents – but created a pattern of human rights violations which persist to this day. During testing, our population was the subject of “medical surveillance” to measure the impacts of fallout - under a program in which American scientists stated of the Marshallese subjects, “they are more like us than mice.” Despite some measure of effort, land remains unfit for resettlement, we cannot eat traditional foodstuffs, and some communities remain nuclear nomads in a culture where, in ways that translate poorly into English, land is identity. The decades that followed testing showed an ever-shifting scientific understanding, disease and death, and resettlement halted after data showed continued exposure. Agreements to compensate were forged but only partially met. And all of the dollars in the world do not truly make up for this great burden. 

The highest point of land in the low-lying nation is the Runit Dome, a cracking concrete crater of nuclear waste slowly leaking into the lagoon – for which my struggling nation has no capacity but has apparently inherited. 

And all of this is somehow rationalized in historical documents which have only realized limited release, or haven't been released at all – which a thick black marker which has “redacted” information due to alleged national security concerns. 

Nuclear testing is very much a contemporary issue – and the bilateral disputes speak for themselves. Their resolution is key to our closure, and our future. 

But the Marshallese have another reason to persist now, decades later, with the very same message given to the United Nations in the 1954 petition. We know – in ways very few others do – why nuclear weapons must be eliminated. We may be poor, we may be brown, we may be from remote Pacific islands that many struggle to find on a map – but we should not have been ignored 6 decades ago anymore than we should be ignored today. 

Nuclear weapons are a senseless threat to essential survival – and there are basic human and ethical norms – not to mention longstanding treaties – which compel those who posses them to pursue and achieve their elimination. This is the subject of legal action by my country at the International Court of Justice and in the United States. And this is the vocal lesson of the Marshallese people – that the world must know that the humanitarian consequences could never justify these evil weapons. That there is no human justification for allowing such risks to persist. 

I would ask of you a question I asked the United Nations in April - how many in this room have personally witnessed nuclear weapon detonations? 

I have — as a young boy at Likiep atoll in the northern Marshall Islands. 

When I was nine years old, I remember well the 1954 Bravo shot at Bikini atoll – the largest detonation the world had ever seen, 1000 times the power of the Hiroshima blast. It was the morning, and I was fishing with my grandfather. He was throwing the net and suddenly the silent bright flash — and then a force, the shock wave. Everything turned red — the ocean, the fish, the sky, and my grandfather’s net. And we were 200 miles away from ground zero. A memory that can never be erased. And one of many from the Marshallese which must inform and underpin global political will on nuclear disarmament. 

After my journey here in Stockholm and Geneva – I will arrive in Paris to help lead very challenging climate negotiations. Where the world is trying to define a long term treaty which will underpin national action from all. But what kind of agreement will it be? The Marshall Islands is a low-lying nation – with an average height of little more than a meter above sea level. Atolls often so narrow you can stand in the lagoon water and look across the land to witness the ocean waves crashing on the other side. The world is well off track to deliver safe levels of ambition. And we must carve out a roadmap and commitment to do more – to not stop until global emissions are at levels which assure our survival. Because it cannot and will not be that the Marshallese will ever again bear such global burdens. 

I want to thank most especially my wife and my best friend, Rosalie, and our three daughters – Doreen, Dolores and Sally Ann for always standing by my side and supporting me, even when the odds were overwhelming. My dad, my brothers and sisters and the numerous people who have made it possible for me to be recognized and honored, I wish to express to you my deepest gratitude and kamolol (mahalos). 

I also want to thank the Right Livelihood Association for the courage to grant this award and for facilitating my presence today. 

For me, the work to address the plight of all affected peoples continues with renewed determination. We owe it to the nuclear victims and the nuclear survivors, but most importantly we owe it to the future generations of our planet. 

Yokwe and God Bless you all.

  Pictures
 Videos

What the US owes the Marshall Islands

November 2014
De Brum gives a talk in "Acting Locally and Globally to Pressure the Capitals" for Eon3 - The Ecological Options Network.

Tony de Brum explains Marshall Islands Lawsuits

May 2014

Speech at COP19 Climate Change Conference

November 2013
COP19 High-Level Segment of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw

Climate Change and Security Press Conference

February 2013
United Nations

Interviews

Pacific leaders respond to Australian minister's sea level remarks – The Guardian, September 2015. Available here.

The Carbon Brief Interview – May 2015. Available here.

BBC World News Interview

May 2015

BBC Newsday Radio Interview: Tony de Brum

2014

BBC World News Interview: Majuro Declaration

October 2013
Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership

Publications

Statement of the Marshall Islands to the 2015 NPT Review Conference – Waging Peace, April 2015. Available here

Islands want UN to see climate as security threat. Washington Times, February 2013. Available here

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

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Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
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Geneva office:
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