THE DIPLOMAT – By Erin Thomas – October 28, 2020
In the upcoming COFA negotiations, the U.S. will paint its economic assistance to the North Pacific as purely altruistic. History tells a different story.
n a recent International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD) report, a team of over 31 collaborating organizations worked to illuminate the inequalities resulting from the Compacts of Free Association (COFA). Drawing on history, policy, and legal analysis, they make the case that U.S. relations with the freely associated states are not benevolent partnerships, but one-sided agreements that are heavily influenced by the unequal power dynamics.
As the renewal negotiations commence, the international community must examine what “economic assistance” means in light of the decades of colonial destruction that has yet to be remedied. If the goal is to foster benevolent partnerships and to deserve a presence in the region, the United States must acknowledge and remedy this legacy of harm.
The COFAs are between the U.S. and three countries in the North Pacific: Micronesia (FSM), the Marshall Islands (RMI), and Palau. The key provisions of the agreements include U.S. military access and strategic denial; independent, self-governing status for the freely associated states; and economic assistance from the U.S.
The economic assistance for the FSM-RMI COFA is set to expire in 2023 which is why discussions about the negotiations have begun this year. Although there are many areas to explore in the negotiations, including compensation for the U.S. nuclear weapons testing program and health care access for COFA migrants in the U.S., Washington has set the terms — narrowing the scope of the discussions to just the expiring economic provisions.
The issues related to the COFAs are complex and vary across the three states. Yet, the common COFA narrative describes the agreement in terms of U.S. military access in exchange for economic assistance and migration provisions. While we often hear about COFA politics through the lens of great power competition, ICAAD’s report unpacks issues related to human rights, migration, and environmental protection with a focus on the COFA provisions and policies that perpetuate inequities.
The historical context of the COFAs is integral to understanding the current status quo. Across the region, military and strategic interests have always driven U.S. involvement — even to the point of political meddling and regime change in Palau — and empty and exploitative promises of self-sufficiency have resulted in dependency and neglect.
During the U.S. colonial administration over Micronesia, American leaders reported on the strategy to maximize U.S. interests in the region. They argued that increased economic assistance would guarantee the loyalty of the islands as a result of economic dependency.
While economic dependency on the United States was the central strategy to ensure the longevity of U.S. military access to the region, the U.S. position continues to tout self-sufficiency. However, for 40 years prior to independence, the policies of economic dependency undermined the freely associated states’ positions to become self-sufficient states.
The reality is that economic assistance never shifted to promote the political autonomy of the freely associated states in any meaningful way. While some have argued that the United States’ contributions to the freely associated states have been understated, others describe these contributions as mere payments in reciprocity for U.S. military benefits.
Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel makes the argument for changing the conversation in international development from aid offered to countries who have caused their own problems to reparations paid for the harm, extraction, and underdevelopment caused by colonization. This case is particularly strong in the North Pacific where colonization is underpinned by racism and American empire-building at the cost of lives, communities, culture, livelihoods, and the health of the environment.
The harm and destruction are clear in the Marshall Islands, where the United States tested nuclear weapons and land-grabbed atolls for strategic purposes. But it extends across the three freely associated states with climate inaction, the U.S., failure to protect COFA migrants from human trafficking, and the explicit exclusion of COFA migrants from federal benefits, including Medicaid, among other challenges explored in the report.
Not only is there ongoing harm perpetrated by the United States, but Washington has also been unwilling to acknowledge the damage. For example, if you look at the U.S. Embassy website, there is no acceptance of the full scope of responsibility for the nuclear devastation caused by the nuclear tests, which vaporized islands and uprooted entire communities from their homes.
Where the U.S. government has acknowledged responsibility, they have significantly narrowed the scope. For example, following the nuclear weapons testing program, compensation for land use and medical care was provided to only four atolls when the radioactive fallout impacted the entire country.
The United States is fond of describing its relations with the freely associated states as equal partnerships. However, a look at history and legal analysis of the COFAs and their related provisions tells a different story, one in which a conversation about reparations would be more appropriate.
Erin Thomas is the Policy and Research Coordinator at the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD). Based in Auckland, New Zealand, she focuses on human rights in the Pacific Islands looking at gender-based violence, climate and nuclear justice, and international human rights law.