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In the Shadows of Giants
Marshallese Diplomats Inspired Courage, Strength in Citizenry

Editor’s note: In August, the Marshall Islands lost two of its top diplomats, Tony de Brum and Mattlan Zackhras, who died at ages 72 and 47, respectively. This piece is adapted from remarks that Selina Neirok Leem of the Marshall Islands gave at an event on September 18, 2017, during Climate Week in New York. Leem was the youngest delegate at the 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP 21), where the Paris climate agreement was negotiated and where the Marshall Islands played a critical role.

A resident walks through tidal water on March 9, 2016, on Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands. Citizens of the small Pacific nation have been moving to the main island and the United States because of a poor economy and difficulty getting supplies to the other islands. The country also is extremely vulnerable to a changing climate. (Hilary Hosia/AFP/Getty Images)


Iakwe is how Marshallese greet one another, accompanied with warm, toothy smiles. Iakwe also means “love” and “you are a rainbow.”

When I think about two of the greatest men in the Marshall Islands, former Ambassador for Climate Change Tony de Brum (pictured here on the right) and Minister in Assistance Mattlan Zackhras (on the left), I am reminded of iakwe and the depth of the word. There was so much depth, an immense sense of giving, and worthy courage that brought de Brum and Zackhras this far.

They not only accomplished so much for our people, they also made their impact internationally. Minister Zackhras was closely following in Ambassador de Brum’s footsteps. De Brum thought of Zackhras as his son, and Zackhras wanted to be like de Brum. Every son wants to be like his father.

In the Marshall Islands, people are moving to the main island and to the United States because of a poor economy and difficulties getting supplies to the other islands. Minister Zackhras tried to do what he could to help the people in Namdrik Atoll, such as helping to found a pearl farm there. Namdrik also became the first atoll to launch virgin coconut oil production. In 2012, Namdrik Atoll was recognized twice by the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Initiative, an incredible feat for a remote atoll.

Mattlan Zackhras (right) helps welcome the zero-emissions ship Walop to Majuro, Marshall Islands, on July 29, 2017. Zackhras, the minister in assistance to the president of the Marshall Islands, died August 8, 2017. (@MattlanZackhras photo)


When he was the minister of resources and development, Zackhras played a big role in the development of the Parties of the Nauru Agreement, which represents eight island nations that control waters where 50 percent of the world’s supply of skipjack tuna is caught.

He was also a great supporter of the youth. I remember being a peer assistant at a science camp held on Majuro Atoll. We had brought in students from the neighboring islands and Majuro itself to learn about coral reefs. The end result was a Model United Nations exercise. Minister Zackhras was one of our guest speakers. He emphasized in his speech the importance of youth involvement and awareness of current issues. We are the future leaders, he said. Welcome and warmth radiated from him.

The same can be said about former Ambassador de Brum. During COP 21, a few of us youth were invited to join as delegates of the Marshall Islands. De Brum wanted us to be exposed to how negotiations worked in the field. He truly believed in the youth. He said we were the future leaders and it was important that we get this exposure early. When we went back home, we shared our experience with fellow youth and those around us.

Selina Neirok Leem, Tony de Brum, and Todd Stern, the former US special envoy for climate change, walk together during COP 21 in 2015, during negotiations on the Paris Agreement. (Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth)


De Brum was a bold leader. He did not do things by half. He gave it his all. As someone who was in the Marshall Islands when the US government detonated the Castle Bravo bomb at Bikini Atoll in 1954, he went to the International Court of Justice in 2014 and filed suit against the nine countries that currently possess nuclear weapons. It was a feat that enraged and encouraged Marshallese and foreigners alike.

Papa Tony was not only a gift to humanity, he was a gift to everyone who had the luck to love him and be loved by him. Just being in his presence was enough to give us the energy we needed to continue to fight for the future. I was blessed by his presence. I always will be.

It is in the shadows of these two special men that the rest of us seek to follow. Their shoes are massive, but we are inspired by their courage and love. If we can only fill a portion of their shoes, of the giant gap they leave behind, we will accomplish much. In spite of our uphill battles, those of us from the Marshall Islands go on for them, and we encourage and invite you to join us. For we will and are continuing the fight.


Selina Neirok Leem is a graduate of the United World Colleges Robert Bosch College in Freiburg, Germany. Until she was 16, she had lived her entire life on the atoll of Majuro, Marshall Islands.


— Selina Neirok Leem
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