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.
Tony de Brum (1945-2017) was a public servant, eventually working as Foreign Minister, who dedicated his life to the pursuit of the Marshall Islands’ independence, security and sustainability. He fought to advance his peoples’ vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
Having witnessed the devastating effects of US nuclear tests in his country, as Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, de Brum, took the unprecedented step of filing lawsuits against all nine nuclear weapons states before 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.
He was also a leader on climate action, seeing the acute dangers climate change poses to island nations. As an architect of the 2013 Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership, de Brum was instrumental in securing the commitment of Pacific Island States to adopt concrete measures to combat climate change. Later, he also played a key role in the adoption of the Paris Agreement.
Negotiating the independence of the Marshall Islands
Tony de Brum was born in 1945 and grew up at 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), 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 devastating effects of nuclear weapons as the Marshall Islands had, 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 the US – 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 the UK have accepted the court’s jurisdiction to hear this matter, and court proceedings are ongoing and expected to take two or three years. In these cases, popularly known as the “Nuclear Zero lawsuits,” the 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 wanted to appeal the judgment to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
He was steadfast in pursuing this legal struggle to its conclusion, convinced that it was 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 was recognised with the “Nuclear Free Future Award” in October 2015.
Demonstrating leadership and taking action on climate change
Acutely aware of the existential threat that climate change presents to the survival of the Marshall Islands and other Pacific Islands states, de Brum was a leading international voice working in coalition with allies to influence the then-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. His efforts succeeded. Persistent in promoting the benefits of an accelerated transition to the low-carbon economy, he brought an impressive track record of leadership and action on the issue of climate change, with the Marshall Islands supplying 95 per cent of its far-flung outer islands’ households and public facilities with solar energy. De Brum had also become the world’s leading voice for the transformational potential of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) technology.
In February 2013, 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 stressed the responsibility of all to act urgently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and confirmed 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 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.