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Palau: Nuclear-Free charter under threat

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(June 24 1994) While the United States presses North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons, it is contradicting these very principles in Palau, where it is trying to get the government to accept a Compact of Free Association that would annul the Pacific nation's nuclear-free charter.

(414.4102) WISE Amsterdam - Fourteen years ago, Palau - a group of islands some 800 kilometers south-east of the Philippines - passed the world's first national constitution out-lawing toxic, chemical, biological and radioactive weapons and material on its soil. Since then, Washington has been pressuring Palau to hold one referendum after another to amend that constitution, which had been approved by 92 percent of the nation's 14,000 people.

"Over the years, as the principle of self-determination has been twisted and deformed into a grotesque travesty of democratic process. The Palauan electorate has moved from elation, pride, hope and empowerment to disillusionment, cynicism and apathy," the International Committee on Palauan Self-Determination said in a pamphlet prepared before the last referendum in November 1993.

In an apparent victory for Washington, Palauan President Kuniwo Nakamura said in May he had agreed with U.S. officials to implement the compact with the United States by October 1. But a group of Palauan women told the United Nations Trustee-ship Council that the November 1993 referendum authorizing him to proceed with the compact was illegal and that there were still environmental matters to be addressed. Palau is the last of the United Nations' original 11 Trust Territories.

Since the passage of its anti-nuclear charter, Palau has suffered political and economic coercion from the United States, activists say. Corruption and violence also became widespread. One president was assassinated and another committed suicide. Isabella Sumang, one of the Palauan women who are legally challenging the 1993 referendum, says: "After the fourth, fifth, sixth (referendum), wouldn't you think that was coercion? That's no longer a free choice."

The tiny Pacific nation has captured world attention in recent years, first for serving as a model of how a country can use its constitution to protect itself from outside nuclear and military threats. Later, it stood out for upholding its right to self determination against relentless pressure imposed, ironically, by the self-proclaimed defender of civil liberties, the United States.

Several Palauan women's groups have joined forces to try to prevent the loss of their lands and waters to U.S. military or nuclear development. Sumang: "In our Palau culture, it is the women who have responsibility for preserving the land for generations still to come. So when the women of Palau realized that our overwhelmingly male elected leadership was not going to stand up to U.S. military ambitions, we took it upon ourselves to take action."

When U.S. and Palauan leaders first negotiated the compact more than a decade ago, the United States was believed to have drawn up plans to move its military bases in the Philippines to Palau. With the U.S. bases in the Philippines now gone and Washington steadily cutting down its military presence in the Pacific, Palauan leaders say the United States no longer has the desire to use Palau for military installations. President Nakamura, who had opposed the compact a few years ago, strongly backed it in November. But if Washington really has no plans to dump toxic waste or build military installations in Palau, why doesn't it amend the compact to make U.S. environmental laws applicable to Palau and ensure it will never be used for such purposes? asked Sumang. She added: "If the United States really does not mean to make Palau its future nuclear waste dump, it can start by giving us the information we have asked for under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act regarding their environmental studies on Palau."

In February 1994, Sumang and three other Palauan women asked a Honolulu (Hawaii) court to ask the U.S. government to stop the implementation of the compact unless it has complied with its own environmental law and completed environmental impact studies, particularly on the military and nuclear clauses of the compact. They also sued their own government for the economic losses suffered by Palauan landowners when it agreed to unlimited U.S. military land acquisition without their consent.

The Honolulu action and another law-suit in Palau's Supreme Court challenging the legality of the November 1993, vote are expected to make it impossible to adopt the compact by October. But Sumang says indications are that the U.S. government is willing to ignore its own laws to implement the compact. Palauan officials are worried that if they are forced to renegotiate the compact because of budget cuts in Washington, the U.S. Congress may be tempted to scale down financial assistance to Palau.

Source: IPS on Greenbase, 5 June, 1994
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