President Christopher Loeak (’82, J.D.) graciously took the time to discuss the major challenges he faces as leader of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In 2012, Loeak was elected to lead this Northern Pacific nation with a population of 55,000 people scattered among 1,500 islands. If you are imagining a tropical life with few worries, prepare to change your mind. Loeak handles the usual rituals of political office – ongoing work on local issues, daily briefings, state dinners, visiting dignitaries – and a great deal more.
How did you get into politics?
I grew up in politics. My parents were traditional leaders, each one a chief at his and her respective chiefdom. They were always involved in political discussions with the people, whether settling disputes, allocating land and resources, or even providing their traditional authority over customs and practices. They actively supported the independence of the Marshall Islands.
I became a public servant after graduating from Gonzaga Law School. My political career in the Marshall Islands began in 1986 when I was elected a senator representing the people of Ailinglaplap Atoll. I also served in several ministerial roles.
What political issue is important today to your citizens?
The nuclear legacy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands is one such issue. From 1946-58, the United States conducted 68 atomic and nuclear tests in the RMI. The total yield of those tests was equivalent to 7,200 Hiroshima bombs. The first deployment of thermonuclear weapon and largest weapon ever tested by the United States was Castle Bravo on Bikini Atoll. It alone produced the equivalent to 300 Hiroshima bombs. Outcomes from these tests included loss of lives, adverse health conditions that continue to plague our communities, and displaced Marshallese people, due to radioactive contamination.
During my administration, for the first time, a UN rapporteur, or investigator, visited the RMI to assess the impact on human rights from the nuclear testing program. Our government continues to advocate for the rights of the Marshallese people at the United Nations and in the United States, in relation to the legacy of the nuclear testing. A number of issues – the impacts on people and the environment, and attribution of responsibility – remain unanswered.
What other environmental issues concern you?
Sea-level rise threatens the very existence of our lands, our sovereignty, culture and future. Erosion, damaged property and the salinization of our fresh water supply are increasing. I can’t begin to describe the painful thought of our home islands becoming uninhabitable. We are painfully aware of our people’s forced relocation following the nuclear tests. Now, for a second time, our people could become environmental refugees.
Twin disasters – drought and deluge – bring home our vulnerability. Drought in our northern islands has significantly affected drinking water supplies, rainwater catchment storage, salinity of groundwater, and agricultural production. Following a disaster declaration for the Marshall Islands by US President Barack Obama, a team from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived in Majuro, our nation’s capital. The FEMA team came to assess the drought, only to witness the king tide and storm waves knock down seawalls and flood the runway at Majuro’s airport. Our country has made climate change the theme of the 2013 meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (made up of 15 Pacific island nations, including Australia and New Zealand). The Marshall Islands is hosting the meeting this September.
What about your economy? What challenges do you face?
There are several. We face constraints on our financial, human and natural resources. We also need to provide a huge boost to our economy that will enable young men and women to stay on the islands and contribute to our development. Yet because we are remote and small, we deal with the lack of a significant private sector, as well as a great distance from markets.
Who was your favorite law professor at Gonzaga?
I have a lot of respect and regard for a number of the law school professors, notably Vern Davidson, Smithmoore P. Myers, Lewis Orland, Michael McClintock, Joseph Nappi, Francis Conklin, William Clarke and Richard Hagedon. They were a great source of inspiration and motivation.
And your overall perception of Gonzaga?
Gonzaga is like a well-oiled machine, taking in young raw talent, building the students up, and producing capable, honest leaders and intellectuals who desire to serve others. Some of my most enjoyable memories from Gonzaga are the diversity of students, the excellent facilities and the opportunity to participate in a range of cultural, social, and sporting activities. The faculty and staff were approachable and always helpful While I was far away from home, I was made welcome and very much part of the community. This, of course, contributed to my success and development at Gonzaga.
What element of Gonzaga’s mission do you use in daily life?
The key ethos of Gonzaga is an embodiment of respect: for oneself, for others, for property, and for authority and honesty. I have always believed that respect must be earned. The main reason I aspired to be president was due to the immense respect and pride I have for this nation, its culture and its people.
What else should the GU community know about your home?
There have been Marshallese students who have studied at Gonzaga. When I was studying there, there were only three of us from the Marshall Islands. I hope more students from the Marshall Islands will elect Gonzaga for their studies.
Will you share a memory from your student days?
When I was attending Gonzaga, I probably spent most of my time playing table tennis at the lower floors of the library rather than studying when I was supposed to. I am a big supporter of the only table tennis club here in the Marshall Islands.