The Marshall Islands ‘fight for survival’ in Geneva

Marshall Islands Ambassador Doreen de Brum presents her credentials to the director general of the UN Office at Geneva, Michael Möller, in 2019. (Credit: UN Geneva/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Marshall Islands’ years-long fight for climate and nuclear justice has arrived in Geneva. Two years in since establishing its mission, Ambassador Doreen de Brum speaks to Geneva Solutions about her country's fight for survival.

About halfway between Hawaii and Australia, a group of about 30 coral atolls stretching over 181 square kilometres in the South Pacific Ocean could very well be swallowed by the ocean in the coming decades. With a population of less than 60,000, the Marshall Islands are among those small nations whose existence is threatened by climate change and sea-level rise.

The nuclear tests conducted by the United States in the Marshall Islands between 1948 and 1958 have also left a legacy of environmental contamination, illness and death due to the radiation.

Hoping to propel the world to stop heating up the globe and help it face the many environmental challenges, the Pacific state opened in 2019 its permanent mission to the UN and other organisations in Geneva – its first embassy in Europe. It’s also the first time the island country is a member of the Human Rights Council.

Ambassador Doreen de Brum, who is one of the two diplomatic representatives leading these efforts, tells Geneva Solutions how her small mission with limited resources is “fighting for survival”.

She explains how she plans to carry on the torch from her late father Tony de Brum, former foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, who led negotiations for independence from the US in the 1970s, and went on to become a prominent political advocate for nuclear disarmament and climate action.

Geneva Solutions: Studies show that if we continue down the current path, in 15 years the Marshall Islands will be partially underwater. It sounds terrifying… How do you personally feel about such a frightening scenario?

Ambassador Doreen de Brum: First, do we really have 2035? Climate change came into our bedrooms uninvited, the waters crept into our homes. It's destroying our livelihoods, our homes. We have nowhere to move. The Marshall Islands is one of five atoll states in the world. We are on the frontline of climate change, and we've mentioned over and over that global temperature rising over 1.5ºC is an existential threat to our people and to our country.

GS: How do the citizens of your country feel about having this threat looming over their livelihoods?

DDB: Most don't want to go. They're forced to leave because their homes are destroyed by sea-level rise. Especially the youth who are saying, ‘we don't want to go anywhere’.  Who are we going to become if we lose our country? We're probably going to be the first climate migrants. We don't want to think about it but someday maybe. If we leave our country, we lose our culture, we lose our statehood. Am I going to be considered an American or a European or wherever we’re placed? Will they still recognise my passport?

But as a state we have a responsibility to uphold the human rights of our population so we'll continue to work, and fight for the survival of our country, even if there's one island remaining that will stand in the middle of our EEZ [exclusive economic zone]. If there's one island that we can build up, we will try to remain in our islands because we are nothing without our islands.

GS: It seems like there are a lot of unanswered questions right now about what will happen as climate change gets worse. What do you hope comes from being in Geneva?

DDB: Right now, our fight is to have a special mandate [on climate and human rights]. We need a person that will be focused on climate change and will continue oversight by the council on these issues. Our situation is dire but it's not unique. Every corner of the globe has been already touched by climate change, the hurricanes in the United States, the super typhoons in Asia, the forest fires in California and Australia. We can't say that one storm is caused by climate change, but their strength and frequency has increased exponentially.

Read also: UN Human Rights Council shies away from appointing expert on climate

And while the rich countries of the world have money and the resources to cope with these events, we and other vulnerable countries simply cannot afford to leap from one disaster to the other. The storms and the king tides that we face can wipe us out in a matter of minutes.

GS: What if no expert comes out of this session? Next year might be too late for you.

DDB: Absolutely right. This is the year of the COP so we think this would be the best time and it was timely to have this secured in the Human Rights Council. We will not stop fighting until we see a special procedure mandate in the Human Rights Council on climate change and human rights. That's our main priority.

GS: Do you plan to take the lead in any other issues?

DDB: Other than climate change, we want to focus on internally displaced persons. That's a major issue for us right now due to the fact that our people have already been internally displaced because of the nuclear testing, and now with climate change, those same people are having to consider moving again. Another one maybe would be to contribute to the report on sacrificed areas by the special rapporteurs on the environment and on toxic wastes, in line with our nuclear legacy.

GS: What do you hope international Geneva could do for you regarding the nuclear issue?

DDB: The first thing we would tackle would be the right to a healthy and safe environment. Considering that there’s environmental contamination on some of those islands, on land, and possibly in the sea, we would like that to be tested.

We are seeing a lot of cancer especially in our young people back home, so [we would like to get] health and medical support. We don't want to be pointing fingers at anybody when we're talking about the nuclear legacy, rather we would like to find solutions to help our people health-wise, and with environmental clean-ups. But mainly the recognition. There's no recognition of tests carried out on us, and we don't feel that we're in this alone. There were other tests conducted in other places in the world until the late 20th century.

This is a human rights issue. It's the right to a clean and healthy environment, the right to health. We did not choose for this to happen to us and for us to have all these medical issues. My family, both my parents have cancer. I have a daughter that has cancer. I have a niece that was four when she had cancer.

GS: So, this is a very personal issue for you as well.

DDB: Absolutely, it’s a fight for my country, but it's also a personal fight for myself, my family, and our children, especially [about] what will happen to them when we leave. Will they have that medical support? Will they still have their islands to live in? Will they still have a country to call home? Will they still have a culture?

GS: You say you don't want to point fingers but at the same time, would you like, mainly the US, to take responsibility for what happened?

DDB: For sure, but that conversation can continue in Washington. Right now, in the Human Rights Council we would like first to get recognised, to get some support on our health and medical issues, get a proper environmental assessment, and not just in the Marshall Islands. We may want to extend that assessment to our neighbouring countries, for example, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Kiribati. In one of the islands, there's a nuclear dome where they had put all the nuclear waste and it's leaking because of climate change. So, this is not just a national issue. It's an international issue and it's not treated as such. We need to change that.

GS: As a representative of a small state, you have to work with limited resources, while surrounded by bigger and more influential diplomatic missions. How  can you make its voice and priorities heard?

DDB: That won't one stop us from trying to reach as many people as possible. Being in groups, for example, the small island developing states, the Alliance of Small Island States, the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the High Ambition Coalition, allows us to amplify our voices. We may be small but the 1.5ºC in the Paris Agreement, when everybody thought it was not possible, it happened... And people thought we weren't going to be able to make it into the Human Rights Council, but it happened. Nothing is impossible.

GS: How has your father played a role in you choosing this path and focusing on climate change?

DDB: I sat next to him and I listened to his stories and his cry and I just absorbed all of that. His spirit is here, and I'd like to continue that. And it's not just me. He paved a wide road for all of us to follow and one of his main goals was to encourage and motivate our youth to carry on the legacy.

He came so many times to the Human Rights Council to make statements. My first time here I looked at the UN building in Geneva, looked through all those flags, and I started getting goosebumps. I thought my goodness, somebody is with me here and I know I will be okay. He's here to guide me and to help me through it all.

When I first came here, I had no residence, no office, no staff, no guard. But the plight that we have in us to fight for our country is what keeps us going and it's what keeps us moving. Despite the fact that we didn't have that many resources or I didn't have an office, I was able to find ways to print what I needed to be printed, find a residence and an office. Like I said, nothing is impossible as long as you have the drive and that motivation, especially if the fight is for survival.