Monday, June 01, 2015

Quest for Decolonization #11: From Distant Islands

Normally decolonization discourse at the UN is fairly focused. This doesn't mean that it is focused in a way that it becomes more efficient or effective. I mean it is focused around certain territories only. That certain territories out there, especially those over which there is a territorial dispute between various sovereign nations, they get the attention. They receive the focus of discussion and intervention. In contexts such as the UN, the words of support you offer your allies is your primary currency. It is the main way you show your friendship and solidarity to others. That is why, for example, in the UN the neighboring Micronesian islands around Guam, tend to vote against Guam when it comes to decolonization. Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia all tend to vote against Guam, because it is one of the few ways they can throw their support behind their sovereign ally of the United States.

The discussion becomes a nexus of these diplomatic ties. Nations speaking out in favor of their friends and against their enemies. As a result, much discussion is devoted to places like the Malvinas, Western Sahara and Gibraltar, while very little attention is given to the rest of the island colonies. This time around there was a little bit more focus than usual on the Pacific, as Guam, American Samoa and New Caledonia were in attendance. Of all the 17 non-self-governing territories in the world, six of them are in the Pacific (Guam, American Samoa, Pitcairn, Tokelau, French Polynesia and New Caledonia). It was surprising and refreshing to have American Samoa present, as their relationship to the United States is perhaps even more complicated than Guam's is, but they have less of a sense of decolonization than we do.

I remember when I attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention and spoke to delegates from both Guam and American Samoa about what it was like being a colony of the US and then attending an event like this, which boils down to a pretty uncritical and gaudy celebration of how awesome and sinless the nation is. Both delegations discussed coming from far away and appreciated the chance to visit the US and what was for a few days the heart of its democracy. Both made platitudes about how awesome the US is and how lucky they are to be a part of this greatest country in the world. When I pushed passed those statements, to try to get the delegates to recognize the political status issue and how strange it is to profess such love for a country that you don't "really" belong to, the delegations responded differently. Both resorted to a cultural cushion in order to give meaning to that difference, when in truth the difference is political. They tried to wrap up the gulf into something cultural, as if to justify or explain the colonial difference, which sadly for me seemed to miss the point of my question. Both delegations then moved into discussion the sharing of their culture, as a way of helping the US understand who they are, so there wouldn't be anymore disrespect or ignorance. When I pushed further however, the Samoan delegates and the Guam delegates changed paths. The Samoans, when pushed into a corner and forced to reconcile the colonial reality, quickly argued for inclusion as being the only way of resolving the problem. Attaining US citizenship, becoming a state. The delegates from Guam however moved towards decolonization as we generally know it here, where inclusion is one option, but so is separation and independence.

It was nice to meet the representatives from American Samoa that came to Nicaragua. Attorney General Talauega Elesalo Ale gave the statement on behalf of the colony, and he was supported by Paramount Chief Mauga Tasi Asuega. They invited me and Commission on Decolonization Executive Director Edward Alvarez to visit them in American Samoa, so that we can learn more about each others' situations and also strategize ways to make decolonization discussion more prominent in the Pacific.
Mauga Tasi Asuega


Am. Samoa Prepares Submission To UN Decolonization Committee
Territory status neither sustainable nor economically secure: Governor
By Joyetter Feagaimaalii-Luamanu

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, April 30, 2015) – Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo Ale says that many of our government and traditional leaders have come to a conclusion that American Samoa’s status quo is unsatisfactory and it’s not economically viable for the territory to remain unorganized and unincorporated because of the inability to have some control over our resources and over our land.
His comments were made at the Cabinet meeting yesterday in reference to a draft letter that was distributed to the cabinet members, which explains to the United Nations the relationship that American Samoa has with the United States.

Next month the AG accompanied by Secretary of Samoan Affairs Mauga Tasi Asuega will attend the United Nations Caribbean Regional Seminar on Implementation of the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism held in Managua, Nicaragua May 19 to 21, 2015.

Talauega explained that Chapter XI of the United Nations Charter calls on the colonial powers to help — what he characterized as former colonies — to become independent. He said the UN prepares a list of "former colonies" that are still today dependent on their "former colonial powers".

"We are in that boat," he said, "We are a territory of the U.S. and we rely on the U.S. for a lot of things, but we also do not have the independence that the U.N. deems each country to have."
He explained that to be removed from the list, "you don’t have be independent, you can become closer and become more part of the U.S. That’s what happened to Hawai’i, they are no longer on the list because they became a state."

He said the question that this poses is, how close do we have to be to the United States to no longer be a colony of the U.S.? Becoming a state is one option for being removed from that list; and another option is to move away from the U.S. — still have some relationship with the U.S. but be more independent. He gave examples like Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia — both former territories.

(Samoa News notes that Palau and the FSM are now Freely Associated States, and their people are not citizens or nationals of the U.S.)

"That’s the debate and the discussion that the governor would like the cabinet to engage in with the community, to determine where we want to be. There’s also a discussion about whether the status quo is sufficient. Many of leaders have come to the conclusion that the status quo is unsatisfactory and it’s not economically safe for us because of our inability to have some control over our resources and over our land."

The AG urged the cabinet members to go through the draft document, which reflects the governor’s views on what we should say to the United Nations about our relationship with the United States.
Talauega told the Cabinet members that he, Mauga and the governor welcome constructive comments, whether positive or negative.

Chapter XI of the United Nations Charter says, "The administering nations have committed to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of development."


"In my view, much of what Chapter XI encourages has already occurred with respect to American Samoa’s relationship with the United States of America. Indeed, by any measure, our union with the United States has resulted in substantial benefits to the people and government of American Samoa," Governor Lolo says in his draft letter.

"But despite the many benefits of our relationship, it is my firm belief that American Samoa’s current political status as an unincorporated and unorganized territory of the United States is neither sustainable nor economically secure. Moreover, it lacks appropriate vestiges of self-governance as required by the UN Charter.

"There are numerous examples of benefits enjoyed by American Samoa under its current status and most important to many American Samoans, has been the protection of the culture and the protection of communal land tenure system that is a foundation of our culture."

The draft document goes on to describe what Lolo says are "significant political, economic, social and educational advancement" in the ensuing years of our relationship with the U.S., which began with a Naval Commandant, gave way to government through a Department of Interior-appointed Governor, and then in 1978 gave way to a government under a locally elected Governor. He notes the election of our senators "by Samoan custom rather than by popular vote, and a Judiciary."
Of our economic growth, Lolo points to the American tuna industry being a "key provider of manufacturing jobs in the territory, and along with government, the largest employer and driver of the economy.

"That said, economic growth commensurate with population growth and the cost of living in the modern world, has not been sufficient to enable the territory to subsist without subsidies from the United States."

Pointing to the many social and educational advancements over the recent half century, as being significant, Lolo says our improved standard of living is well above that of our island neighbors, with "mandatory education from K through 12th grade, including U.S. accredited high schools and an accredited community college now offering four year degrees in specialized areas." He says "American Samoa has come some considerable distance since our forefathers made the voluntary decision to cede sovereignty over our islands to the United States, which accepted the Deeds of Cession by Act of Congress in 1929."

However, Lolo says, "notwithstanding these major developments, there are significant shortfalls in our form of government.

"For example, our government continues to exist by virtue of delegation of authority from the President of the United States, to the U.S. Department of Interior, and then to us.
"Our Legislature cannot override a veto of a bill by the Governor without the approval of the Secretary of Interior, and our Constitution cannot be amended without the approval of Congress, despite Congress never having approved our Constitution to begin with.

"The Secretary of Interior continues to appoint the senior members of our Judiciary."

Lolo stated that American Samoa’s legal status is indeed a relic of colonial days that needs to be remedied for us to meet what we believe to be the standards for consideration for de-listing by the Committee.

"But whether the territory is de-listed or not, what is more important to us, is the fact that our current legal status, as temporally satisfactory as it may be, leaves us exposed to vagaries in Washington D.C. that are beyond our control."

Our unique size, location, geography, and economic circumstance contribute to this problem, Lolo says, adding that "this exposure is exacerbated by the fact that American Samoa does not have appropriate representation in Congress."

"Our one delegate to Congress is a non-voting member of the House of Representatives. We have no representation in the Senate — each of the 50 states has two senators in the Senate."

He said American Samoa is also exposed to actions arising out of litigation in the U.S. Federal Courts that may contrive to have a judge in a remote courtroom issue a judgment that could impact the legal status of our people under the U.S. Constitution (such as the citizenship case now pending in Washington, D.C.). 

Lolo further states that our political status exposes American Samoa to bullying tactics of federal agencies.

He uses as examples of this type of bullying the recent actions of "the Federal Aviation Agency (prohibiting the American Samoa Government from using approximately 325 acres of local government land without prior approval of the FAA, as a condition to releasing federal funds which are rightfully due to American Samoa for its airport operations) and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (authorizing large longline fishing boats to invade the protective 50-mile zone around American Samoa, which was previously preserved for fishing by local alias and traditional Samoan fishermen).

"Until we are able to cast our political status in a concrete fashion, giving us concrete protections, the fact we live under a delegation of authority from Washington, D.C., will haunt us with the possibilities of action being taken from far away that impacts upon us in ways we cannot anticipate nor for which we can adequately plan."

Samoa News will report on the second part of the draft letter in later editions.

The Samoa News
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