High Chief Ibedul Gibbons / The People of Belau

Awarded 1983

Palau

For upholding the democratic, constitutional right of their island to remain nuclear-free.

High Chief Ibedul Gibbons and the People of Belau have fought against the presence of US nuclear weapons on the territory of Belau (also called Palau), a Micronesian archipelago in the Western Pacific. High Chief Ibedul Gibbons has played a major role in supporting his people’s struggle to preserve the values enshrined in Palau’s constitution, resisting both internal and external pressures and facing difficult personal conflict. Intimidation, corruption and violence have characterised the years of this struggle, during which the local population saw its own freedom and constitution jeopardised by the Compact of Free Association between the United States and Palau.

In 1979, the Belau People overwhelmingly approved a constitution that prohibited the use, testing, storage or disposal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons on their territory, and the entry of both nuclear-power and nuclear-armed ships and aircraft. However, a crisis ensued in the following years.

At the centre of it was the Compact of Free Association between the US and Palau. This would have given Palau internal self-government, a 50-year aid package and certain defence guarantees. In return, Palau should have had to forego some foreign policy autonomy and allow the US certain military rights. These rights were, however, incompatible with the anti-nuclear clause in the constitution. The Belau People fought to uphold the constitution.

We are standing up to express the belief of a peaceful, nuclear-free nation, a nuclear-free world.

The People of Belau, 1983 Laureate

High Chief Ibedul Gibbons received the Right Livelihood Award in 1983 on behalf of the people of Palau for the courageous defence of Palau's constitution against the political machinations of those supporting the islands' Compact with the United States.

Palau, also called Belau, is a Micronesian archipelago in the Western Pacific with a population of 15,000 people. After World War II, it became a US Trust Territory, by which the US was mandated to provide for the development of the political, social and economic well-being of Palau, leading to its independence.

In 1979, the people of Palau voted overwhelmingly for a constitution that prohibited the use, testing, storage or disposal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the entry of both nuclear-power and nuclear-armed ships and aircraft. In the following years, the country was in continuing crisis. Two presidents were shot dead, political activity was characterised increasingly by violence, intimidation and corruption, and the Palauan and US governments were accused of tampering with the democratic process.

At the centre of the crisis was the Compact of Free Association between the US and Palau. This would have given Palau internal self-government, a 50-year aid package and certain defence guarantees. In return, Palau should have had to forego some foreign policy autonomy and allow the US certain military rights. These rights were incompatible with the anti-nuclear clause in the constitution and the US refused to agree on the Compact while this clause was in force.

Before its adoption, the 1980s saw unremitting pressure from Compact Supporters, many of whom stood to gain personally from it. Ten referenda were held on either the Compact or the Constitution. None yielded the 75-per-cent majority required to change the constitution, but Palauan courts found that they gave rise to threats, bribery, intimidation and violence.

Under the US pressure, the Palau Supreme Court ruled that the three-quarters majority needed to amend the Constitution could be replaced by a simple majority (51 per cent). This was done in yet another referendum and the Compact was finally approved in October 1994.

This struggle split Palau's small and closely-knit society to such an extent that the Ibedul (High Chief) faced a difficult personal conflict between his traditional consensus role and his opposition to the Compact. The brunt of the struggle for a nuclear-free Palau was carried by the Belau Pacific Center and the Coalition of Women's Organisations, Otil a Belaud. Under heavy pressure, they abandoned their court case just before the 1994 Compact implementation deadline. However, a resumption of their campaign was planned if and when the US decides to implement the nuclear "rights" conferred by the Compact.

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