Remembering Tony de Brum: From “Island Boy” to International Warrior

It was the summer of 2012 when I first met Minister Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands. We were in Rio de Janeiro for a sustainable development conference. As an undergraduate intern for the Marshall Islands United Nations office, I was charged with assisting the delegation that had arrived for the week-long summit. From the outset, Minister de Brum had a contagious aura about him. He was the jovial grandfather with a lifetime of stories to tell having grown up as a self-proclaimed “island boy.” With these stories, he could captivate everyone from a young starry-eyed intern to a jaded diplomat.

Surely violating the protocols of how to treat an elder statesman, I incessantly peppered Minister de Brum with questions about the history of the Marshall Islands. He would patiently respond without showing even a modicum of annoyance. On our final night in Rio, I finally gathered the courage to ask Minister de Brum about his experience with “the testing.” Over the week, he had made several passing references to his personal experience witnessing the U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. Minister de Brum obliged and began to describe how of the 67 nuclear tests the United States had conducted in the Marshall Islands, the “Castle Bravo” shot was by far the largest in scale — larger than any other test the United States had ever conducted in the world. Minister de Brum recounted that at the age of nine, he was fishing with his grandfather when he saw the Castle Bravo test go off without any warning. The vivid details of this experience could best only be described by Minister de Brum himself as he did in a 2015 interview:

Minister de Brum’s description of the immediate aftermath of the Bravo shot shook me to my core. He recounted the experience of being dragged by his grandfather to a neighboring island where his countrymen and women were being stripped naked in the open and inspected by U.S. military personnel for radiation exposure. One can only imagine how formative that experience must have been for a young boy. Minister de Brum went on to relate how years later when he began negotiating for the independence of his country, he was spurned time and time again by the U.S. government in his requests for further declassification of information regarding the scale and scope of the nuclear testing. Without this, the Marshall Islands had little data to ensure that its population wouldn’t be further exposed to residual radiation from the testing.

Not wanting to forget a single detail, I went back to my hotel that night and wrote down everything Minister de Brum had told me. I then undertook a year-long study looking through old national security memos with the intention of writing an article on the U.S. nuclear testing legacy. During the process of writing my article, I corresponded with Minister de Brum frequently over email asking him questions that arose as my research progressed. During one such exchange, I asked Minister de Brum why the Marshall Islands had accepted in the Compact of Free Association — the agreement that established independence from the United States — a provision that would terminate all existing and future legal proceedings against the U.S. government related to the nuclear testing in exchange for an ad hoc tribunal with limited funding. Minister de Brum in his classic terse style responded with: “…that was ultimately the price of freedom.” A few months later, during a trip to the Marshall Islands, I had the chance to give Minister de Brum a hard copy of the article I had written for the Columbia Political Review. He silently stared at it for some time before he looked at me with his eyes welling up and said: “thank you.”

Over the next two years, I watched from afar as Minister de Brum increased his advocacy for nuclear justice and climate action. And finally in 2015, I got the opportunity to work full time through a diplomatic advisory group — Independent Diplomat — to assist Minister de Brum and the Marshall Islands government during negotiations towards the Paris Agreement on climate change. That year, Minister de Brum crisscrossed the world and built an unlikely coalition of developed and developing countries that helped break the traditional gridlock that had saddled climate negotiations up until then. With his charm and wit, Minister de Brum had quickly risen to be one of the “power players” of the Paris climate negotiations.

It was a dream come true to work for a man I had come to admire so deeply. One particular experience I will never forget was when I accompanied Minister de Brum to a meeting convened by former Vice President Al Gore. Shortly after the meeting, Minister de Brum walked me over to Vice President Gore and said: “Mr. Vice President, I’d like you to meet my aide Narayan. He basically thinks you’re a walking superhero.” Indeed, I had told Minister de Brum numerous times that my passion for climate change policy could only be attributed to Vice President Gore, whose documentary I had watched as a high school student. Little did Minister de Brum know, however, that in my eyes, I was in the presence of two of my walking superheroes.

I feel privileged to have known and served Minster de Brum. Because of his tireless efforts, future generations will not forget the destruction we wrought on our planet with the testing of nuclear weapons and the burning of fossil fuels. And today, we are at least one step closer to tackling the existential crises of our time because of Minister de Brum. As he loved to say, “we are not trying to save the islands, we are trying to save the entire world.” This is the legacy of Tony de Brum — the “island boy” who became an international warrior.

Rest in peace, Minister.

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