Micronesia wrestles with red tape on road to real independence. Lack of UN approval of US pact may hurt prospects for aid
Washington — Just a simple presidential proclamation and it was over. This past November, the curtain fell on nearly 40 years of United States administration of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and the archipelagoes of the area known as Micronesia became free, independent, self-governing nations.
So went the script, anyway. More precisely, they are ``pretty free, very dependent, but really self-governing'' states, as a high official of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) put it recently.
The 2,000-island Micronesian chain - covering 3 million square miles of the western Pacific and administered as a single trust by the US for the UN since the end of World War II - is now split into four island groups. One, the Northern Mariana Islands, became a US commonwealth. The Republic of Palau's status is tied up in legal limbo. The other two island groups, the FSM and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, are beginning a new era of limited sovereignty.
But the simplicity of the finale was deceptive.
The 150,000 inhabitants of these islands worked with the US for 16 years to work out their ``Compacts of Free Association.'' Under the compacts, each of the new republics has a constitution, a legislature, and a full political agenda. But in each case, actually reaching the agreement was extremely difficult. For some of them, the process is not over yet.
President Reagan's November proclamation was an attempt, questioned by many but supported by the islanders, to circumvent obstacles in the UN, from which most of the world figured approval had to come.
``We approved [the agreement] in 1983, and we wanted it implemented,'' says Epel Ilon, the FSM's Washington representative. ``If we [the FSM and the US government] have made this decision, why do we have to go to anyone else?''
The compacts provide for a total of $3 billion to be sent by the US to the FSM, the Marshalls, and Palau over 15 years, with payments decreasing gradually. The island governments are to decide how to spend the aid, unlike under the trust, when the US approved all spending. The idea is to end what both sides feel is a parasitic economic dependence on the US which has given these islands the feel of welfare ghettoes.
The US wanted the UN to sign off on all the agreements last fall, ending the last postwar trusteeship. But hopes dimmed when it became apparent that UN Security Council approval was needed to terminate the world's only ``strategic trust.'' The Soviet Union, accusing the US of annexing Micronesia, threatened to veto.
In an added complication, a Palauan court ruled last fall that the Free Association Compact with Palau violates the Palauan Constitution, which includes a ban on nuclear weapons and materials. As a result of the court decision, the section of the compact that allows US air and naval craft near or over its islands - and says that the US is not required to say whether they are nuclear-powered or carrying nuclear weapons - snagged the approval process. Seventy-five percent approval of the compact could have overridden the constitutional catch, but only 66 percent of Palauans approved it in the December plebiscite.
``The Constitution, unfortunately for us, protects the interests of the 34 percent who don't want the compact,'' says Palau's US representative, Noriwo Ubedei, reflecting his government's support of the pact. ``The will of the minority is protected to the detriment of the majority.''
Months, perhaps years, could pass before the issue is resolved. And UN attorneys advised that the trusteeship could not be terminated piecemeal, so the other island republics would have to wait for Palau. Thus Mr. Reagan summarily announced the trusteeship's end for the other three states, declaring the independence a fait accompli.
``Our attitude is, we've notified the Security Council of what's going on,'' says Howard Hills, legal adviser in the Department of Interior's Office of Micronesian Status Negotiations. ``As far as we're concerned, the trusteeship is over. In our view, we've fulfilled our obligations.''
Island officials agree. ``The UN has no choice,'' says Wilfred Kendall, Washington representative of the Marshalls. ``All obligations had been discharged, and we were consulted about this.''
But some international observers say such pronouncements will not be the end of the story.
``The Soviet Union is likely to at least voice a strong complaint'' about Reagan's action, says a UN diplomat who believes the procedure was illegal.
Lack of official UN approval also means the islands have an uphill struggle for recognition from other nations, which could hurt as they seek badly needed economic aid and foreign investment. In recent years, revenues from fishing licenses, local taxes, and exports have represented only 5 to 10 percent of the FSM's annual budgets; the rest has come from aid - mostly from the US and Japan. The other islands are in a similarly dependent state.
The Soviets have raised US concerns by seeking, and in some cases concluding, fishing agreements with some Pacific islands, such as Vanuatu.
The area's strategic importance to the US has a long history. Nuclear tests were conducted on Bikini and other atolls in the Marshalls in the 1940s. Kwajalein, also in the Marshalls, is currently a missile-testing site. Palau's compact contains military provisions that could allow the US to put bases there, should the Philippines decide not to renew base agreements.
Micronesians who expect problems will come with trying to stand on their own feet economically say they did not expect such a difficult passage just to the starting gate. Until its Constitution is amended or some other compromise is reached, Palau will continue as a trust territory. The other islands will hope for world approval, with UN snags smoothed out, so they can get on with economic development.
``There may be technicalities out there that people may raise, but we need to cut off this dependency'' on the US, Mr. Ilon, the FSM representative, said. The hesitation of the international community ``isn't fair - it's not based on the democratic wishes of our people.''