We know - in ways very few others do - why nuclear weapons must be eliminated.
Acceptance speech – Tony de Brum & the People of the Marshall Islands
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 ñredactedî 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 grandfatherÍs 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.
Tony de Brum
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
P.O. Box 1349
Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960