Banning Nuclear Weapons: How Many Times Must a People Say No?

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In 1979, the nascent Republic of Palau, the western most islands of Micronesia that came under US control after some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, wrote and ratified the world's first constitution banning nuclear substances and weapons from their territory. Tosiwa Nakamura, the man who introduced the nuclear-free clause into the Constitutional Convention, said that 92 percent of the 7,000 Palauan voters voted for the clause because of their memories of the devastations of World War II, which for them began with the American bombing of their islands. The Palauans know full well the fate of the peoples from Bikini, Rongelap and Utirik, where irradiation from US testing is recorded.

From the moment it was adopted, the nuclear ban was unacceptable to the US. In response, the administering authority called a new constitutional convention. However, the constitution it proposed was turned down and the original constitution reaffirmed as the basis of the move to self-government.

Despite the proliferation of micro-states in the sixties and seventies, any thoughts of full independence were thwarted in the late seventies when the islands split into four political groupings: the Northern Marianas, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshalls and Palau. Each progressed individually to self-government. The Northern Marianas accepted Commonwealth status and the FSM and Marshalls accepted a new political status specially invented for the situation - the Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the US. Loosely based on the "freely associated state" status that the small territories of Cook and Niue negotiated with New Zealand, the essential difference is that with COFA the people do not have the power to unilaterally terminate the relationship to seek full independence. Like the people of Cook and Niue, they surrender control over defense to their former colonial administrator. But unlike New Zealand, the US maintains a nuclear defense. Moreover, Palau is in the sea lanes between Japan and the Middle East and at the edge of the deep Palau trench that permits submerged nuclear-powered and -weaponed submarines to pass from Pacific to the Indian Oceans without detection by Soviet satellite surveillance. It is at least as strategically essential to the US as the Kwajalein Missile Base in the Marshalls.

Traditionally, the Palauan people make their decisions by consensus. At present, they require at least 75 percent vote in the Western electoral style to override the nuclear ban in their constitution.

The Palauan electorate voted on COFA in 1983 and 1984 and could not reach the minimal 75 percent to override the nuclear ban. Political tensions grew and the Republic's first president, Haruo Remeliik, was assassinated on June 30, 1985. His successor, Lazarus Salii, had been instrumental in negotiating the Compact - which enables the US to write off its economic obligations to a territory where it would have perpetual use of one-third of the minuscule land are for military purposes including nuclear storage. However, he, too, has been unable to engineer consensus. In February 1986, he came close when 72.5 percent of the voter turnout of 71 percent supported COFA at the third referendum. The Supreme Court of Palau refused to consider the compact ratified.

The US attempted to force termination of this last trusteeship by voting COFA into law in the three territories in late November. On November 27, 1986 US officials clearly stated that failure to pass the COFA would send it back to the drawing board, a process that might take another five or 10 years and leave funding to Palau dependent on US whim.

Criticism of this high-handed approach compelled the Trusteeship Council to send observers. Palauan opponents of COFA also requested an independent observer team to monitor the fourth referendum, held in December. Three lawyers from the US, Canada and New Zealand accompanied by a Danish member of the European Parliament and the present writer, United Nations representative of the nongovernmental organization Minority Rights Group, went to Palau to observe the last three days of the campaign, the December 2 poll and the counting process.

The Final Vote?

The Salii administration rushed the COFA through the Palauan legislature, subject to the people's ratification. They argued that ratification of the COFA was the top priority of the government and therefore all government resources would be harnessed to ensure its passage at the polls. In a memorandum dated November 17, the Minister of Social Services announced that "it is expected of all personnel to vigorously campaign for the Compact," saying "It is no longer tolerable for civil service employees to oppose the system while remaining in it and enjoying all the benefits due to dedicated employees."

Four days later, the assistant to the director of education closed the public schools and required teachers "to campaign for the Compact of Free Association with the United States." Students and teachers were requested to attend government rallies at which attendance was taken.

The government created a Political Education Committee which, while claiming to be nonpartisan, was widely perceived to be campaigning for the Compact throughout the villages of Palau. At a government rally the day prior to the election we heard the chairman of the committee urge the people to vote "Yes" as he himself planned to do.

The US appropriation of $275,000 for the three week campaign and referendum period was distributed largely to establish "Yes" campaign headquarters. Estimates of the total funds spent by the government in pursuit of a "Yes" vote range from $500,000 to $750,000 in cash, civil service release time and the use of equipment such as government vehicles to bring out the vote.

The constitutionalists, those who voted "No" to the requirement to override the seven-year-old constitution, had no access to these resources. Led by Traditional High Chief Ibedul Gibbons and 17 senators, the Belauan Peoples Association for the Constitution and an Improved Compact managed to match every "Yes" billboard in Palau with their own succinct reasons for voting "No." They advised that the defense provisions were too long and threatened the traditional lands of the Palauan people; the economic proposals were unbalanced and already over committed by the present administration to development interests that are not in the best interest of the people. Most of all, they warned, the nuclear provisions threatened the future of Palau and all the world. As Gibbons has said over the years, "We have made it clear to the US that Palau is not willing to be subjected to testing and the use of nuclear substances therefore taking the risk of being completely destroyed like our neighbors at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. We will continue to believe that a nuclear-free Palau is consistent with the interest of the US to promote world peace."

Polling day was calm and well administered and voters seemed to have adequate privacy, many felt that they had to walk a gauntlet between the "Yes" and "No" campaigns. In some cases, traditional chiefs were conspicuously lined up in full view in the "Yes" encampments. All voters we spoke to felt that they had been under great pressure.

Yet, the ability of Palauan voters to withstand pressure was apparent from the first returns. Of the first 3,154 votes counted, 2,000 were "Yes" and 1,146 "No." In the final outcome of this seventh vote on the same issue, the Compact of Free Association, with it nuclear defense provisions, was once again defeated - 65 percent Yes, 35 percent No.

Clearly, the US did not promote stable government in Palau. The present administration has built up an $8 million deficit in its first year, and three British banks and Lloyds of London are suing the Palauan government for the $38 million power plant built by the British company IPSECO, which is vastly overcosted and operating at barely one-third of its huge capacity.

Three constitutional referenda and four on the COFA have not promoted consensus, but rather a polarization that will take a long time to heal. One of the most striking themes we met again and again in our conversations with Palauan voters was their conviction that they had worked hard and consciously to reconcile their traditional practices of consensus with American-style democracy, and they feel that the 75 percent override provision expresses that consensus. The bulldozing tactics of the US and President Salii are perceived as such and not appreciated. "The US," said one Palauan senator, "teaches us democracy and then breaks all the rules." No Palauan believes that the US would have gone to these lengths if they had no designs to place nuclear substances in Palau.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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