IN THE REMOTE Pacific islands of Microneisa, the United States is undercutting its own professed ideals of democracy and human rights.
The islands have been under U.S. supervision since 1947. Now the island groups that make up this last United Nations trust territory are negotiating their transition into semi-independent nations associated with the United States. The Carter administration has set a 1981 deadline for the final transition, and U.S. officials already have started shutting down the 80 or so welfare programs that have poured $130 million a year into the islands.
In the rush to meet this self-imposed deadline, the Carter administration has done violence to its own human rights policy, at least in spirit, in the effort to protect American military interests in the 1980s.
The most flagrant example is in Palau, an island district of nearly 15,000 residents. Next Tuesday, the citizens of Palau will go to the polls to vote on a new constitution, written to U.S. specifications after the Carter administration, acting through an illegally convened local legislature, succeeded in killing an earlier constitution which the people overwhelmingly ratified in July.
The story is complicated and almost unknown outside the islands. It began six months ago.
In April, a popularly elected constitutional convention, approved and partly funded by the U.S. government, completed a constitution which, among other things, would ban storage in Palau of nuclear weapons, nuclear wastes and other deadly weapons of war, establish a 200-mile territorial jurisdiction and impose stringent controls on acquisition of lands for U.S. military bases. The United States, which wants to preserve transit rights for its aircraft and nuclear-powered ships and to continue to set aside land for possible future bases, opposed these provisions during the convention. Shortly after it adjourned, U.S. Ambassador Peter Rosenblatt traveled to Palau and, in a closed-door, heavily guarded session with the Palau legislature, restated the strong American opposition to the constitution.
In June, the legislature, meeting without the 25-member quorum required by its charter, voted to nullify the constitution and a popular vote on it scheduled for July 9 on the grounds that the document failed to meet U.S. objectives. A pro-constitution group, composed of nearly the entire convention that wrote the constitution, filed a lawsuit to void the legislature's action. After the controversy went to the courts, American authorities in the trust territory allowed the referendum to take place under U.N. observation.
On July 9, the constitution was ratified by an unprecedented margin of 92 to 8 percent despite intimidation, including physical threats, against the U.N. observers and the public. After the vote, however, U.S. High Commissioner Adrian Winkel, an appointee of President Carter and the highest American representative in the trust territory, permitted the legislature to establish a commission to write a new constitution satisfactory to the U.S. government. Later in the month, the chief justice of the Trust Territory High Court, an American appointed by the Interior Department, upheld the legislature's action to nullify the constitution and the referendum results.
In August, Rosenblatt and Winkel summoned representatives of the convention and the legislature to a meeting on Guam, an American territory some 800 miles away. That meeting failed to resolve the controversy. The legislature-appointed commission completed its work on the second constitution.
On Sept. 4, Palauan voters again went to the polls, this time to elect a new legislature. All but one of the 28 seats were won by candidates running on a platform to revive the first constitution. Because they will not take office until next January, the legislators-elect petitioned the U.S. government to install them immediately. Instead, the U.S. government, after a top-level meeting in Washington among Rosenblatt, Winkel and Interior officials, empowered the old legislature, whose four-year term expired Sept. 2, to continue in existence until January.
The United Nations, which observed the July 9 voting, has not been invited to witness next Tuesday's referendum, which was inspired by Rosenblatt and which the legislature has spent thousands of dollars to influence.
The Carter administration argues that the second constitution is necessary if the United States is going to enter into a free association with Palau. Negotiations on this new semi-independent status, however, have not been completed; it would be unfair, therefore, for the United States to require that the Palauans design a constitution that fits the U.S. conception of free association. Moreover, the first constitution allows for later amendments to make the document compatible with free association.
The damage is not yet permanent. President Carter can still move decisively to salvage what remains of his human rights policy in Micronesia. If ignored, the Micronesian dispute, however insignificant in comparison with more immediate and larger concerns facing his administration, will further tarnish what is otherwise a laudable stance on human rights. What's more, the dispute may cause unnecessary delays in the United Nations when both the United States and the Micronesians go to the world organization for its approval of the termination of the trusteeship.
There are several things the president can do:
First, suspend his plans to terminate the trusteeship in 1981 and let any termination date be decided in the negotiations with the Micronesians. 1985 is a more realistic date.
Second, reverse the decision to terminate or phase out all federal programs in the next two years. Let the Micronesians know that the programs will end with the termination of the trusteeship and help them put new programs in their place.
Third, call a halt to the negotiations to give both sides a chance to reassess the future relationship they want to have with each other. Given the current atmosphere of the negotiations, good faith on both sides is hard to come by.
Finally, give Ambassador Rosenblatt another assignment. At present, he is a liability, both with the Micronesians and the Congress, and any agreement he produces may come to naught on Capitol Hill.