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1st Female President of the Marshall Islands & Her Poet Daughter: We Need Climate & Nuclear Justice

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This year’s U.N. climate summit is known as the first “Islands COP,” with Fiji presiding over the event, but hosting it in Bonn, Germany, because of the logistical challenges of hosting 25,000 people in Fiji at the start of the South Pacific cyclone season. Today is also Gender Day here at the U.N. Climate Change Conference. We are joined by the first woman president of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine, and her daughter, poet and climate change activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We are broadcasting live from the U.N. climate summit in Bonn, Germany. This year it’s known as the first “Islands COP,” with Fiji presiding over this year’s summit. The event itself is being held in Bonn, Germany, because of the logistical challenges of hosting 25,000 people in Fiji at the start of the South Pacific cyclone season. Today is also Gender Day here at the U.N. climate conference.

Well, we’re joined now by the first woman president of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine, and her daughter, poet and climate change activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. This is Kathy reading one of her poems at a U.N. climate change gathering in New York City in 2014, only days after the massive People’s Climate March, the largest climate march in history. Kathy’s poem is written as a letter to her child.

KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: dear matafele peinam,

don’t cry

mommy promises you

no one will come and devour you

no greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas
no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals no blindfolded
bureaucracies gonna push
this mother ocean over
the edge

no one’s drowning, baby
no one’s moving
no one’s losing their homeland
no one’s becoming a climate change refugee

or should i say
no one else

to the carteret islanders of papua new guinea
and to the taro islanders of fiji
i take this moment
to apologize to you
we are drawing the line here

because we baby are going to fight
your mommy daddy
bubu jimma your country and your president too
we will all fight

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, back in 2014. Well, less than two years later, her own mother, Hilda Heine, was elected president of the Marshall Islands, becoming the first female president of an independent Pacific nation.

And they’re all still fighting. Climate change and sea level rise poses a particularly devastating threat to low-lying island nations like the Marshall Islands, a chain of volcanic islands and coral atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines. According to a report by the U.S. Geological Survey, “many atoll islands will be flooded annually, salinizing the limited freshwater resources and thus likely forcing inhabitants to abandon their islands in decades, not centuries, as previously thought,” unquote.

But climate change is not the first existential threat the Marshall Islands has faced. Between 1946 and ’58, the United States conducted more than 60 large-scale nuclear tests there. The largest, known as the Bravo shot, was a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb and vaporized three small islands. The nuclear testing forced people from their homes and caused long-lasting health impacts, including women giving birth to “jellyfish babies”—tiny infants born with no bones.

In 2014, the Marshall Islands launched an unprecedented lawsuit against the United States and eight other countries at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, accusing them of failing to meet international commitments for nuclear disarmament. The lawsuit was rejected in 2016 after the court said it did not have jurisdiction over the case.

Well, for more on climate change and the long legacy of nuclear testing, we’re joined now by the president of the Marshall Islands herself, Hilda Heine, and her poet daughter, climate change activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Madam President, your thoughts today at this first Islands COP, this first COP summit, the U.N. climate summit, that is sponsored by another South Pacific island, Fiji? The significance of this?

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: Well, it’s very significant for Pacific Island countries, you know, being our first one. So, it’s important for us to be here to let the world know that everyone has to do their part. We are wanting to be here to make sure that countries increase their ambition, so that the 1.5 degrees can be maintained. That’s the importance for our island country in order for us to survive. So it’s very important. This COP is very important for us.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is the first U.N. climate summit since President Trump announced that he’s pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord. What does that mean to you?

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: Yeah, that’s why it’s all that more important for us to be here and to gather the support from other countries around the world. We were very disappointed when—of course, when President Trump pulled out the United States from the Paris Agreement. We see them as important leaders in the world and should be taking the leadership role in the climate fight. So when he decided to pull the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, it was a very disappointing act for countries like the Marshall Islands.

AMY GOODMAN: What message do you have for President Trump today? We just played their first—and, it looks like, only—event that they’re holding here at the climate summit, where they were pushing coal, nuclear and gas.

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: Well, I think we’re all for coal to be kept underground. And we want to make sure that President Trump understands the importance of emission and what’s going on in terms of coal being promoted by his administration. We want to make sure that—oh, we want President Trump to acknowledge the science. There’s no longer debate about the issue of climate change. We need to make sure that, you know, we’re doing all we can to ensure the survivability of all the island countries, especially, and the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about this idea, which, sadly, isn’t an idea, but a reality, of what they call jellyfish babies. Can you talk about the legacy of nuclear testing in the South Pacific, in the Marshall Islands? Talk about—first of all, how many islands make up the Marshall Islands? I don’t think people realize the breadth and scope.

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: OK. Yeah, well, we have 33 islands in the Marshall Islands—atolls, actually, with many other smaller islands, about a thousand-some. But the communities, there are 33. We have 24 islands that are inhabited with actual communities in the Marshall Islands.

The legacy of the nuclear testing program brings back the whole issue of colonialism and how the U.S. has colonized the Marshall Islands. To this day, we’re still struggling with the legacy of the—you know, what we call jellyfish babies. We have people who—

AMY GOODMAN: This is babies without bones.

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: Babies without bones that were born by women who were—who lived in the islands that were contaminated. And we still have people who have not returned to their homelands after 50 years of being displaced from their homelands. We have islands that were vaporized by the nuclear testing program. Of course, these islands belonged to people. And those can never be recovered. So we’re still seeking nuclear justice for the people of the Marshall Islands. This is one of the—the legacy of the U.S. presence in our country. And it seems like we’re repeating with the climate change issue coming on, also same force from outside being brought to influence or to impact the livelihood of Marshallese.

AMY GOODMAN: Your grandniece—Kathy, your niece, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner—died at the age of eight of leukemia?

KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: Oh, talking about Bianca.



PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: Yes, she died at age eight as a result of leukemia.


PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: And many children like that also. It’s not a—this is one of the common—what do you call?



KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: We have some of the highest rates of cancers—


KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: —in the world. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You suffer the highest rates of cancer in the world?


KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: Yeah, we have some of the highest in the world.

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: So, this is one of the impacts. The health impact on the people of the Marshall Islands is, you know, beyond our budget to ensure that the people are healthy. Again, a legacy of the nuclear testing program.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, The Hague—The Hague, the International Court of Justice, said it’s not within its jurisdiction to rule on this suit that you have against the Marshall Islands [sic], and they threw the case out. Are you still asking the United States for reparations? And what does it mean to you that at this COP, COP23, at this summit, the U.S. is pushing nuclear power?

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: Well, it’s the same thing as pushing the use of coal, you know, in a world that has acknowledged that climate change is here. And yet, on the face of that, U.S. is here pushing for use of clean coal, if there is such a thing. And it’s the same thing with the nuclear justice. Here we are. We’re still struggling with that. And we don’t see the end of this journey for those people who are impacted by the nuclear testing program of the United States. So we continue to seek justice. We go to the—we’ll be going to the United Nations. And we’re trying to also get advocates from around the country to help us with the nuclear justice that is required.

AMY GOODMAN: So, on this Gender Day, we’re here with a mother-daughter team. Madam President, you are the first woman president not only of the Marshall Islands, but of the Pacific Islands. And, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, you are her daughter and a longtime climate activist yourself, poet. You wrote a letter to your daughter. We just played a clip of it before, a poem to your daughter. What does it mean to you that your mother has been elected president? And what does it mean for the Marshall Islands?

KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: Well, to be honest, I didn’t really expect it to happen at all. I mean, I never thought that I would see my mom as—you know, as a leader of a country and as a leader of our country—not because she’s not, you know, perfect for it, not because she’s not worthy, but just because, you know, so much of our society is extremely patriarchal, you know? And I think that’s also a result of colonization. And I think, you know, seeing her become president tells me that there are actually changes being made and that there is actually hope for a lot of us women to continue to push and continue to take on leadership positions and make changes that we want to see in the world. And I think that’s really—you know, it gave me a lot of hope. And I was extremely proud, of course, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Your final comment? I know you’re heading off to yet another meeting. This is part of being president. Your final comment to women of the world, why you see, in particular, the effects of women and children—the effects of climate change, what you see are those effects?

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: Well, there is—in the Marshall Islands, we see the effects on women and their life, because they are the caretakers of the homes. So, if there is drought, they’re the ones that will have to go out and look for water for the family, look for food in order to cook the meals for the family. So their life is really upside down when there is these events from climate change. We see that firsthand with our droughts, with inundation of the waves coming over our islands and washing homes away. It’s the women leading the—leading the solutions, looking for solutions for families, like they always do. Climate change is another addition to the work that women continue to do to make their families survive.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end with the comments of a previous Marshall Islands political leader. I want to thank you so much for being with us. We’re going to turn to longtime Marshall Islands political leader, anti-nuclear activist Tony deBrum, the late leader. DeBrum was one of the world’s most prominent voices confronting climate change, spent decades organizing against nuclear weapons, after having witnessed firsthand the U.S. nuclear testing on his homeland. This is deBrum speaking in 2015 as he accepted the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “Alternative Nobel Peace Prize.”

TONY DEBRUM: Decades after the conclusion of devastating nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, I might be branded by some as a radical for my impassioned conviction against the use, testing or possession of nuclear weapons. But this is not radical. It is only logical. … I have seen with my very own eyes such devastation and know, with conviction, that nuclear weapons must never again be visited upon humanity. … Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 large-scale nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. That is the equivalence of 1.6 Hiroshima shots every day for 12 years.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tony deBrum, longtime Marshall Islands political leader, accepting the Right Livelihood Award a few years ago, the late leader. And I wanted to end with Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner talking about your NoDAPL solidarity. That’s the Dakota Access pipeline.

KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: Yeah, I was really inspired by the work of the indigenous protesters in NoDAPL, just because they were fighting for their land and for clean water, in the same way that we are fighting for our islands in the Marshall Islands. And as someone who lives in the U.S. at the moment, I wanted to show my support for the people of their land, and that’s why I wrote that poem for them last year. But for me, really, I think I am really inspired by the work of a lot of indigenous activists around the world, who are trying to fight for their home, for their culture and for their people.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much. Again, our guests have been Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, poet and climate activist, and the first woman president of the Marshall Islands, President Hilda Heine.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Kumi Naidoo joins us to respond to the U.S.’ one and only session here at the COP summit, where they brought in corporate executives from the nuclear, gas and coal industry to represent the president of the United States. Stay with us.

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