When ‘free association’ becomes a loose phrase


By Gabriel McCoard Pacific Reflections

Every few years for the past 15 years or so, a certain obsession grips Pacific Island civil society, which is to say, the media, the island and U.S. governments, a few groups here and there, and expat gossipers.


I’m talking, of course, about the perennial (if not perpetual) fever of Compact of Free Association “renegotiation” and “renewal.” We all know what COFA means.


I call it indifferent panic.


Consider some headlines. Honolulu’s Civil Beat: “Interior Official Pushing to Renew COFA Treaties This Year Despite Obstacles.” Or, the non-profit organization ICAAD Human Rights Innovation: “Compacts of Free Association in FSM, RMI and Palau: Implications for the 2023-2024 Renewal Negotiations.”


I have, as an expat gossiper myself, personally used the language of compact renegotiation and renewal. Until I realized something: the compacts don’t expire. For a while, at least.


Certain things end, of course. The most significant is the most obvious: money. Financial assistance ends once the legislation that provided for it expires. Government spending is, after all, a creature of the law of U.S. appropriations.

Just ask any U.S. governor, mayor, or non-profit director receiving a federal grant.


The compacts themselves, however, continue forever. Until they don’t.


It hardly bears repeating. The compacts allow for citizens of the three COFA nations to move freely and work in the U.S., and the U.S. gets military rights in the islands.


But don’t take my word for it. This is from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO, the accounting arm of Congress. They audit how federal monies are spent, and respond to congressional requests to, in their words, “improve government and save taxpayers billions of dollars.”


Over the past year, the GAO has hosted numerous public meetings about the compacts, and assessing their impact, or “compact impact,” a phrase that everyone in Guam and Hawaii knows well. As in, Hawaii, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands typically report spending more on COFA benefits than federal compact impact benefits repay.


Among the GAO’s reports is one from June 2020, titled, “Compacts of Free Association: Populations in US Areas Have Grown with Varying Reported Effects.” The report is 152 pages long and covers numerous topics.


I won’t try to summarize it, but there are many notable points, such as the number of COFA migrants from 2005-2009, and again from 2013-2017, grew by 68 percent, from 56,000 to 94,000.


Half of COFA arrivals lived in the mainland, rather than Guam, CNMI, or Hawaii. That’s just the first page of the report.


Both in public webinars and through reports, the GAO has stated that the bulk of the compacts are more or less permanent.


“While many compact provisions are ongoing, certain economic assistance to Micronesia and the Marshall Islands ends in fiscal year 2023 and assistance to Palau ends in fiscal year 2024,” GAO stated in a June 2020 letter to Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, then-chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

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In a footnote, GAO noted that “many Compact provisions, including some related to defense and migration, last in perpetuity or until terminated in accordance with the terms of the compacts, according to officials at the Department of State.”


The Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau, each in separate agreements — technically the U.S. agreed to the FSM and RMI agreement in the same legislation —entered into a Compact of Free Association with the United States. As this relationship has evolved, both between Micronesians hightailing it out their homeland at the first opportunity, and China increasingly churning on the horizon, “freely associated” is a concept bordering on the absurd.


So what happens then if an agreement cannot be reached about funding? So far, it’s fallen under continuing budget resolutions, as in the U.S. will continue funding under current levels until an agreement can be reached.


But what if that’s not enough? Chuuk secessionism has raised the specter of the compacts not being quite so ironclad.


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How can the compacts end?


In the case of Palau, its government must call an election and give three months’ notice to the U.S. The U.S. can terminate with six months’ notice. In either case, the bulk of the agreement remains in effect until 50 years, which is to say, 2045.


In the case of the Marshall Islands and FSM, the terms are similar. Plebiscite with notice. The end date in either scenario would be 2036.


Given the stakes for all nations involved, such speculation is likely little more than that.


Given Micronesia’s economic needs, despite the indifference from both the U.S. and their own leaders, and China on the literal horizon, the “free” in “freely associated” is becoming little more than a word on paper.


Gabriel McCoard is an attorney, who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to gabrieljmccoard@hotmail.com.




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