1991 Laureate Jeton Anjain of Rongelap

Pacific Islander Laureates continue fight for environmental justice, enduring effects of nuclear testing and climate change

News 20.04.2023

During the atomic era, powerful nations like the United States and France used the Pacific Islands as a testing ground for their nuclear programmes. Nearly 300 nuclear tests were detonated in the Pacific Islands, with devastating consequences for the health of the region’s people and environment. Besides the nuclear tests, the islands have also been among the first ones to experience the effects of climate change. Multiple brave visionaries and their communities would receive the Right Livelihood Award for addressing and raising awareness about these issues. While the testing has stopped, these communities remain at the frontline of an environmental crisis they had little part in creating.

The Pacific Islands have been disproportionately affected by the impact of human activity on climate and the environment for as long as we have been tracking these. Due to the region’s low-lying geography and reliance on natural resources, such as coral reefs and fisheries, which are threatened by rising sea levels, warming temperatures, and ocean acidification, the Pacific Islands are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

As a result, Pacific Islanders are more likely to experience involuntary migration, water and food insecurity, and loss of livelihoods and infrastructure. The region has, therefore, been at the forefront of international efforts to address climate change and has long advocated for greater action by the Global North.

While the rest of the world is only now taking action to protect this vulnerable area, Pacific Islanders have had no choice but to address the climate crisis head-on. And they have been doing so for more than 70 years.

Compounding the environmental devastation, in the mid-1940s, the United States began nuclear testing in the Pacific Islands. With little regard for the environment and local people, the global superpower conducted more than 60 tests in the region. 

After being ousted from conducting tests in Algeria, France also moved its nuclear programme to the Pacific Islands. From 1966-1996, the country detonated over 190 nuclear explosions in the region. 

Both countries’ nuclear programmes have had long-term impacts on local populations. The immediate consequences included the contamination of food and water sources, radiation sickness and damage to infrastructure, all of which forced people to flee their homes. In the long term, these issues have compounded, devastating the Pacific Islands’ social, cultural and economic well-being.

When the nuclear testing began, communities and their leaders wasted no time seeking justice. High Chief Ibedul Gibbons, The People of Belau, Marie-Thérèse and Bengt Danielsson, Senator Jeton Anjain, The Rongelap People, Tony de Brum and The People of the Marshall Islands all received the Right Livelihood Award for protecting the Pacific Islands.

Amidst the urgent threat of the climate crisis, these Laureates’ stories remind us of the progress we have made and the steps we still must take in order to save our planet and its people.

High Chief Ibedul Gibbons and The People of Belau

High Chief Ibedul Gibbons’ and the Belau people’s fight against US nuclear colonialism made international headlines in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1979, the people of Belau adopted a groundbreaking constitution that banned nuclear, chemical and biological weapons on their land, including ships and planes carrying such weapons.

However, a crisis quickly followed due to the Compact of Free Association between the US and Belau (also called Palau), an agreement defining the relationships between the two states. The Compact would have given Belau internal self-government, a 50-year aid package, and defence guarantees but demanded that the US receives military rights that clashed with Belau’s anti-nuclear clause.

In the face of intimidation, corruption, and violence, the Belau People fought tirelessly to uphold their constitution and defend their land from nuclear weapons. In recognition of their bravery, High Chief Ibedul Gibbons received the Right Livelihood Award in 1983 on behalf of The People of Belau “for upholding the democratic, constitutional right of their island to remain nuclear-free.”

Their story demonstrates the power of people’s movements and their ability to affect change on a global scale, even in the face of powerful actors.

Marie-Thérèse and Bengt Danielsson

Marie-Thérèse and Bengt Danielsson were a married couple known for their persistent campaigns against French nuclear colonialism in the Pacific.

Despite the disastrous effects of France’s 30-year nuclear programme in the region, the French government has blocked all independent investigations into the full extent of the damage caused by these tests.

In protest, the Danielsson’s published numerous scientific studies and popular books on Polynesia and campaigned relentlessly against French nuclear colonialism. Their efforts brought attention to the social and environmental impacts of France’s nuclear testing.

The couple received the Right Livelihood Award in 1991 “for exposing the tragic results of, and advocating an end, to French nuclear colonialism.” Bengt and Marie-Thérèse dedicated their lives to this cause until they passed away in 1997 and 2003 respectively.

Senator Jeton Anjain and The Rongelap People

Jeton Anjain, a Marshall Islands parliamentarian, devoted his life to fighting against the devastating effects of the United States’ nuclear testing on the Rongelap People and their environment.

The nuclear tests exposed the Rongelap people to more than 2,000 times the maximum permissible one-year dose of radiation, leaving them with severe health problems and contaminated land that could not sustain their way of life.

Anjain lobbied the United States for years to transfer the Rongelap People to a safer environment so that independent tests could be conducted on the island. But, the US failed to act, and the islanders were forced to flee Rongelap for an inhospitable atoll 120 miles away.

Anjain faced criticism for the evacuations, as the US maintained that Rongelap was safe as long as its northern part was avoided. However, Anjain discovered that the US was secretly maintaining an atmospheric nuclear test capability in the Rongelap area, a direct violation of the US’s Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands.

Finally, in 1991, Anjain’s efforts paid off, and the US agreed to a health and radiation survey of Rongelap. He and the islanders received the Right Livelihood Award the same year “for their steadfast struggle against United States nuclear policy in support of their right to live on an unpolluted Rongelap island.” 

Tony de Brum and The People of the Marshall Islands

Former Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands Tony de Brum dedicated his life to fighting for his country’s independence, security, and sustainability.

As a child, de Brum witnessed the devastating effects of the United States’ nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. This included 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.

Determined for all people to live in a nuclear-free world, de Brum courageously filed lawsuits against all nine nuclear weapon states before the International Court of Justice in 2014. He was committed to holding them accountable for failing to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In addition to his anti-nuclear work, de Brum was also a leader in climate action. One of his greatest accomplishments includes the 2013 Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership, which gathered leaders from the Pacific Islands to call on the Global North to take responsibility for its historically greater contributions to climate change. De Brum was also influential in the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

De Brum’s legacy lives on through his work towards creating a nuclear-free and sustainable future in the Pacific. He received the Right Livelihood Award in 2015 on behalf of The People of the Marshall Islands “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.”

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