From wayward balloons to the future of TikTok, the US-China relationship has been front-page news, and tensions are high. But you might not have heard about the three small but mighty Pacific Island Nations sitting right in the middle of this tension: the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Republic of Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia. These countries each have a unique and important relationship with the United States, recognized in agreements called the Compacts of Free Association (COFA), two of which are up for renewal in the next 6 months.
Just yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on “Renewed U.S. Engagement in the Pacific: Assessing the importance of the Pacific Islands.” Under the Compacts, the US gets exclusive military rights to all land and waters of each country. Given their location in the Western Pacific, not far from China, this is seen as extremely valuable for US national security.
In a rare moment of bipartisanship, helped along by shared concerns about Chinese influence in the region, Rep. Young Kim (R-CA-40) and Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA-6) kicked off the hearing by highlighting the value of the Compacts. Rep Kim also pointed out the necessity of addressing the ongoing legacy from US nuclear testing in the area and the risk of natural disasters. Indeed, the entire committee, both Republicans and Democrats underscored their support of maintaining these agreements. This is promising.
What are the Compacts of Free Association?
These agreements set up quite the bargain: citizens of the three COFA countries can live and work in the United States indefinitely and move back and forth freely without a visa. They receive economic assistance for things like education and disaster relief, as well as basic services like use of the US Postal Service. And in exchange, the US gets exclusive military rights to the strategically valuable land and waters of each country in the Western Pacific– a maritime area larger than the United States. The US government therefore has a vested interest in keeping the COFA agreements alive and maintaining good relationships with these countries.
But to understand the full picture, and especially to understand what this means for the people living in these countries, we have to back up to World War II.
US nuclear testing in the Pacific
In 1944, the US seized control of the region from Japan, who had previously controlled the islands. The Marshall Islands, Palau, Micronesia, and the Northern Mariana Islands1 became “The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands” – bestowed by the UN but under the control of the United States.
At this time, the US was looking for a “remote” place to test their largest nuclear weapons and they settled on the Marshall Islands. While technically, yes, these islands were remote compared to the continental US testing site in Nevada, as Dr. Arjun Makhijani says, “they were not remote for the Marshallese people; they were home. And they were selected despite the fact that the military’s own evaluation stated that the location did not ‘in the main’ meet the meteorological criteria for safety,” especially because there were populations within 150 miles of the test sites.
The US conducted 67 nuclear tests in the RMI between 1946 and 1958, and they were nothing short of devastating for the Marshallese people. To put it in perspective, because these tests were so large, the total yield of the 67 tests was roughly equal to conducting 1 Hiroshima-sized bomb every single day for 20 years.
The late Ambassador Tony DeBrum, a legend in the world of nuclear justice and diplomacy from the Marshall Islands, shared in the last interview he gave:
“There was barely time to take a deep breath and say ‘Ah, peace at last…we have gone through war – not our war, somebody else’s war – but we were caught in the middle, and now we have a chance to breathe easy.’ No, there was not a chance for that. Because every time one of those things went off, was yet another trauma, a very real, physical hurt for our people, but also I think a more permanent psychological trauma that we still witness today…And I would challenge anyone to live through 12 years of testing…that does not come away with a permanent scar…It totally controlled our lives.”
Tony deBrum, Marshallese politician and government minister
Nuclear testing spread radioactive material across the islands, in some cases causing immediate radiation poisoning, and in the long term leading to persistent health problems across generations, including cancers and reproductive issues like miscarriages and stillbirths.
Lijon Eknilang, from Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, describes her experience after the Castle Bravo test, the United State’s largest nuclear weapons test:
“For many hours, poison from the bomb kept falling on our islands. We kids were playing in the powder, having fun, but later everyone was sick and we couldn’t do anything… Late in the afternoon I became very sick, like I was going to vomit, and I had a bad headache. Toward the evening, our skin began to burn like we had been out in the hot sun all day. The next day, the problems got worse. Big burns began spreading all over our legs, arms, feet, and they hurt very much. Many of us lost our hair. Of course, we did not know that the snow was radioactive. Over the weeks that followed, the fallout that our bodies were exposed to caused blisters and sores. The serious internal and external exposure we received caused long-term health problems that affected my parents’ generation, my generation, and my children’s generation.”
Entire islands were destroyed or contaminated; some islands will never be safe for human life. Some populations, evacuated days after first being contaminated, had no shelter, no food, and no medical care. The US government then studied those most exposed, generally without their consent and without providing adequate medical care, leading the Marshallese people to feel like guinea pigs in a giant US experiment.
As they have done, and do, over and over again, the Marshallese fought for their rights and justice, and in 1979, the Marshall Islands became an independent country. In 1986, they entered into the first Compact of Free Association with the United States, as did Micronesia, and Palau followed in 1995. Recognizing the severe harm caused by US nuclear activities in the Marshall Islands, their Compact included provisions for environmental monitoring and compensation for loss of health and land. The money allocated proved to be woefully inadequate: According to the National Nuclear Commission, of the nearly $2.4 billion awarded to the RMI by an independent tribunal for property damage and personal injury, roughly $2.2 billion was left unpaid.
The RMI compact was renewed in 2003, and now all three Compacts are up for renewal: the Compacts with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands will expire Oct 2023, and Palau’s will expire in 2024.
Back to the future: 2023 COFA negotiations
Negotiations around the content of these Compacts are ongoing – they were stalled in 2020 and 2021, but were jump-started with the appointment of Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations in early 2022. As of February 10, 2023, Memorandums of Understanding have been signed for all three Compacts, which outline the basic scope of the final Compacts to come.The signed MOUs show important progress: all parties involved have a vested interest in ensuring that the Compacts continue and meet the needs of both countries. But the road to MOUs was contentious on some points.
Over the past year, the Marshallese community stood firm (and stood up to the behemoth power of the United States) in their assertion that these renewed Compacts must address the ongoing nuclear legacy in their country and the impacts of climate change as rising sea levels threaten the islands’ future. In the past, the United States has denied any further responsibility for ongoing harms related to over a decade of nuclear testing. The Marshallese community resoundingly refutes this stance. But in Sept 2022, the US administration said “We, too, acknowledge the nuclear legacy of the Cold War. The United States remains committed to addressing the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing environmental, public health concerns, and other welfare concerns.” And these issues do seem to be addressed (at least to some extent) in the MOU.
Marshallese and other COFA citizens who now live in the US are also making their voice heard on the needs of their communities.
Benetick Maddison at the Marshallese Educational Initiative had this to say:
“And what of the Marshallese who have already left the islands seeking access to healthcare, education, and employment. The nuclear testing legacy – the driving force behind migration – has taken its toll on all Marshallese people. Most public benefits that were a part of the original Compact have been removed over the years…What Marshallese qualify for under the Compact – or even the Compact agreement itself – is unknown to most US citizens, including federal officials whose responsibility it is to make decisions on Marshallese eligibility of benefits….Those of us whose families migrated and continue to migrate in increasing numbers, now more and more due to climate change and rising seas, are sincerely grateful to the United States for providing opportunities despite injustices done to our people. For my family and all Marshallese families living in diaspora in Arkansas and across the United States, who sacrificed our lands, bodies, and culture for the good of mankind, we ask to be heard, to be seen, and to be treated fairly.”
The COFA population in the US is estimated at around 100,000, and 20 US states are each home to at least 1,000 COFA citizens. Rep Kim, who led yesterday’s hearing, has a clear stake in this – she represents part of Orange County, which is home to a large population of Marshallese residents. Despite paying taxes that fund these programs, they are still largely unable to access federal benefits like Medicaid, SNAP, education assistance, and more. They were eligible for these benefits through the Compacts, but that access was stripped away – seemingly as an accident – in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Though Medicaid access was technically restored in late 2020, from my own conversations with Marshallese communities around the country, it seems that rollout has been spotty and, in some cases, non-existent.
The Compacts do have provisions called “Compact Impact” funding, which provides economic assistance to US regions (Hawaii, Guam, and other Pacific territories) with high COFA populations. But some of the states with the largest populations, like Arkansas, California, Oregon, and Washington, are not included in those provisions.
This month, a bipartisan group of legislators re-introduced the Compact Impact Fairness Act. Senators Hirono (D-HI) and Boozman (R-AR), and Congressmembers Case (D-HI-1) and Womack (R-AR-3) teamed up to finish the job after Medicaid restoration in 2020. Their bill would ensure that COFA residents have access to all federal benefits they are entitled to. These members come from the Hawaii and Arkansas delegations – also states with high COFA populations. Supporting years of advocacy from COFA community members, Senator Hirono recently led the fight in Congress to restore Medicaid.
What comes next?
Yet again, these island nations are caught up in the conflicts of global powers, this time the United States and China. But as it turns out, this role in China-US competition is a large factor in bringing these bipartisan groups together now to act. And thanks also to the incredible advocacy from COFA communities, there have been many encouraging developments: the restoration of Medicaid in 2020, the signing of the Compact MOUs, the re-introduction of the Compact Impact Fairness Act, and now this hearing demonstrating strong bipartisan support for passing the Compacts. Step by step, Marshallese community members and other COFA citizens may be getting closer to justice.
Now, Congress must be ready to take action. In the hearing yesterday, a State Department representative said they are working to finish the Compacts in a matter of weeks, not months. Very little information about what’s in the Compacts is public, so it’s hard to know if the final agreements will even get close to achieving justice for COFA citizens. But when the Compacts are sent to Congress, they need to be ready to pass them swiftly, or COFA citizens could face a lapse in economic assistance that could be extremely damaging. At the same time, Congress can’t forget COFA citizens living here in the US. COFA communities have been fighting since 1996 – almost 30 years – for these benefits. The Compact Impact Fairness Act should be passed as soon as possible.