The Final Call Online Edition


WEB POSTED 10-04-2002
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The U.S. and the Marshall Islands

by Bernice Powell Jackson
—Guest Columnist—

( -- The Marshall Islands and Micronesia are half a world away, just about midway between Hawaii and Australia. Small, low-lying islands and atolls, they were put under U.S. trusteeship by the United Nations at the end of World War II, having formerly been under the control of Japan.

Under the terms of the trusteeship, the U.S. was obligated to assist these two Pacific nations in becoming self-sufficient and independent. But, in many ways, we have done more harm than good and now the Marshallese are beginning to tell their stories.

They’re telling their stories because the compact agreement between the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, which was signed in 1986, is now up for renegotiation. They’re telling their stories because since that compact was signed, at least two studies and reports have been released that show that Marshallese and Micronesians were not aware of significant factors that greatly impact their lives and relate directly to their relationship with the U.S.

First, they were not fully aware of the impact of the nuclear testing done on their islands from 1946-58. During that time, 67 nuclear tests were conducted by the United States. Recently declassified documents show that the radiation from the testing was the equivalent of 10 Hiroshima-sized bombs per week throughout the testing period. As a result, not only was the health of the people of the Marshall Islands and Micronesia impacted, so too, were the plants and animals of their islands and surrounding waters.

Consequently, women from these islands have suffered disproportionate numbers of miscarriages and births of severely deformed children and islanders continue to suffer high rates of cancer, tuberculosis and immune deficiency diseases and even leprosy.

Secondly, another declassified government document, "The Solomon Report," written by a U.S. government delegation, shows that U.S. policy, while publicly voicing its role of working with these island governments toward their independence, privately sought to keep both nations tied permanently to the U.S. through "strategic economic dependency." This is partially due to the realization that these nations are located in a strategically important location for the U.S. military.

Under the compacts signed 15-years-ago, the U.S. agreed to pay the Marshall Islands $1.1 billion, over the life of the agreement, including the rent for the U.S.’s use of its largest atoll for missile testing and compensation for the earlier nuclear testing. But many of the people of these small islands remain removed from their islands, unable to return, due to damage done by the testing.

Others, like the 15,000 people from Kwajalein atoll, were moved to make room for the U.S. army base. Still others find little work, with the only industry being farming of dried coconut meat, the source of coconut oil. But the separation of the people from their land has led to high incidences of alcoholism, depression, teenage pregnancy and hopelessness.

Moreover, the U.S. dollars are not nearly enough to repair their environment. In addition, they face the rising waters of the ocean due to global warming, which may mean that many of these islanders will never be able to return home.

One of the provisions of the compact was that Marshallese and Micronesian people could move in and out of the U.S. without passports. That has allowed many of them to seek health care and jobs in the U.S., many in Hawaii but as far away as North Carolina, where they work in the poultry industry. But since Sept. 11, as the Bush administration has sought to tighten our borders, they are pressing for an end to this part of the agreement. For people still suffering greatly and for whom health care is especially critical and often unavailable at home, this would be unbearable.

For all of these reasons, the people of the Marshall Islands and Micronesia have applied for full and just compensation for their peoples and for overturning of unfair provisions in the agreement as these compacts are currently being renegotiated. This fall, members of churches from the Marshall Islands are in Washington, meeting with U.S.-elected leaders and government officials. They need our support. They need our prayers. They need justice.

(Bernice Powell Jackson is executive director of the Commission for Racial Justice.)

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