This article highlights the important ramifications for the United States’ Compacts of Free Association with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and Palau around human rights, migration, and economic assistance leading up to the 2023-2024 renewal negotiations.

Introduction

The Compacts of Free Association (COFA) with the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and Palau have shaped political, economic, and social possibilities for the freely associated states and for the role of the United States in the region. In 1986, when the agreements were initially negotiated, they were a route to independence for FSM, RMI, and Palau. The upcoming renewal negotiations will be affected by the greater political autonomy of the freely associated states. This article highlights the important ramifications for the COFAs around human rights, migration, and economic assistance leading up to the 2023-2024 renewal negotiations.

Background

The Compacts of Free Association are the political association agreements between the United States and three countries in the Pacific Islands: Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and the Republic of Palau. Historically, these states, along with other territories in the region of Micronesia, faced several forces of economic, political, and military colonization. After World War I, the region as a trust territory was administered by Japan. From 1947 to 1994, the region, as the UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), was granted to the United States.[1] With the Cold War raging on, U.S. territory in Micronesia became a prime location to exert U.S. military power. It also became the site of the largest nuclear weapons testing program in the world, with over 67 weapons detonated and tested with results upwards of 1000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima.[2]

There are two separate COFA agreements, one between the United States, FSM, and RMI, and one between the United States and Palau. The agreements were an opportunity for the United States to maintain strategic influence in the region while supporting the self-determination and economic self-sufficiency of FSM, RMI, and Palau. They effectively ended the TTPI and granted independence to the island states. The agreements span government, economic, and defense relations between the United States and the freely associated states. The provisions are similar across the agreements (see Figure 1).

The COFAs with RMI and FSM will be up for renewal in 2024 and the COFA with Palau in 2023.[3] It has been over thirty years since the initial negotiations, and the dynamics during the upcoming negotiations will be different. The rising influence of China reinforces the strategic importance of the islands, and the trade-offs for the freely associated states under the current agreements show that there are possibilities beyond the current terms. The agreements have shaped political, economic, and social realities for the freely associated states and for the role of the United States in the region.

FSM, RMI, and Palau all have had different experiences under the COFAs, but many have been shared, especially considering the similarities between the agreements. This article will explore the issues thematically with examples from all three states, highlighting key issues of human rights, migration, and economic assistance for the upcoming renewal negotiations.

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By: Erin Thomas

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