OUR FATE IS IN OUR HANDS: MARSHALL ISLANDS

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By Thomas Kijiner, Jr.

Response to Francis Hezel's PIR commentary "Becoming a Professional Victim" dated July 25, 2000

I’ve read with great interest Father Hezel’s article "Becoming a Professional Victim" as well as the subsequent discussions on the MicSem Internet forum. The emergence of conflicting views on the article brings back fond memories of junior year Logic Class at Xavier.

Hezel writes that "[w]hatever injuries and bodily problems they may have suffered, Marshallese at least retained their indomitable spirit. They once thought of themselves as survivors—as they were indeed." Contrary to the contention that the "changed circumstances" petition and tobacco lawsuit demonstrate that Marshallese are becoming professional victims, I would argue that the indomitable spirit of the Marshallese people is alive and well. Indeed, the tobacco lawsuit and the "changed circumstances" petition prove, contrary to the belief that Marshallese are the "quiet" Micronesians, that like anybody else Marshallese do have their own opinions and will defend them, even against such formidable adversaries as the U.S. government and the tobacco industry.

That said, let me present certain facts which the article fails to point out. The assertion that the "changed circumstances" are nothing more than a lucky break for the Marshallese government is erroneous and could not be further from the truth. The "changed circumstances" provision is an integral part of the compact agreement. It was put into the agreement at the insistence of Marshallese negotiators during the first compact talks. While it was accepted by both the Marshallese and American negotiation teams that there were damages done to the people and the environment as a result of the U.S. nuclear testing program, many other questions remained. The real hard questions were 1) What was the extent of the damages? and 2) What was the appropriate level of compensation for such damages?

Now, because of "national security" concerns any and all information related to the nuclear testing program in the Marshalls were kept secret, particularly from the RMI negotiation team. Without any information, our negotiators could not begin to place any appropriate compensatory value on damages resulting from the nuclear testing program. But it was known that compensation for nuclear damages would easily surpass the $150 million, an arbitrary figure which someone pulled out of thin air, that was finally agreed to in Section 177 of the compact. Hence, the "changed circumstances" provision. Luck, I don’t think so. Foresight, yes.

As the article correctly points out, much of the information which are being used by the Marshallese government in its "changed circumstances" petition has only recently been uncovered, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. Even so, the Marshallese government continues to fight an up-hill battle with the U.S. in its efforts to gather more information, still being withheld by the American government under the guise of national security, to find the truth behind the nuclear testing program, and, more importantly, to put the nuclear legacy to rest once and for all.

The sad part about all of this is that the U.S. continues to fight the Marshalls every step of the way. At the recent G-8 Summit in Okinawa, President Clinton apologized for crimes committed by U.S. military personnel against the people of Okinawa. Yet, some forty years after the end of the nuclear testing program, the U.S. government has not only refused a formal apology to the Marshallese people, but contends that it did nothing wrong. The RMI government’s "changed circumstances" petition is intended not only to seek additional compensation based on newly declassified information, but also to fulfill U.S. obligation under the terms of the Compact. And, no, it’s not luck.

With regard to the tobacco lawsuit, it should be pointed out that, unless the figure has been changed recently, the amount being sought by the RMI government is $4.6 billion. There are actually three elements in the RMI government’s personal injury case against the U.S. tobacco companies. The lawsuit seeks actual, compensatory, and punitive damages. Now, because the complaint also seeks punitive damages, that amount can either go up or down. It will be up to a judge, or jury if it is a jury trial, to decide the final compensation level.

The article goes to some lengths to illustrate the fact that tobacco was already being cultivated in certain parts of Micronesia as early as the 1700s. Furthermore, the author writes "[w]hen I first came to Micronesia in 1963, I found many people smoking although there were no billboards, commercials or other advertisements urging them to smoke." Similar to the state attorney-generals lawsuits in the U.S., the thrust of the RMI government’s complaint is that the U.S. tobacco companies have been selling defective products to the Marshallese. The fact of the matter is that these tobacco companies have been tinkering with their products to make them more addictive— this is a fact that tobacco executives have admitted to only recently.

It is not so much that "[t]he tobacco companies seduced us, poor ignorant islanders that we are," as the article points out. It is really that these tobacco companies have been hawking defective products to Marshallese. The tobacco companies may not be responsible for introducing the weed to the Marshalls, but they are definitely responsible for increasing the number of life-long customers in the islands by selling "spiked" products that are more addictive, therefore, more harmful to consumers, whether it is some poor ignorant islander or a college-educated American.

For its part, the RMI government has been actively engaged in an anti-tobacco campaign. Even before the tobacco lawsuit, the Public Health Bureau at the RMI Ministry of Health & Environment has been waging an anti-tobacco awareness program that is at least twelve years old. But as the article points out, tobacco companies have notoriously deep pockets. Whatever little budget the RMI government could dedicate to anti-tobacco campaign cannot possibly match the deep pockets of the tobacco companies.

Now, with regard to the settlement awards for the nuclear-affected communities in the Marshalls, the fact should be highlighted that great strives have been made over the years by the leadership in these communities to improve the standard of living of their people. If one were to look around Majuro today, one would notice that there is a lot of construction of new homes around the island. These new and beautiful homes belong to the nuclear-affected communities.

Aside from the construction of new homes, these communities have also established scholarship programs to educate their youths. While the success of these scholarship programs is debatable, the fact still remains that these nuclear-affected communities are not just sitting around and "jingling the change in its cup while shrugging off responsibility for its future." Indeed, the nuclear-affected atolls also have their own community development projects in their respective islands that are targeted at improving the standard of living of their people.

As I was reading the article, the parable of the Prodigal Son came to mind. Would it not be a greater sin if the Marshalls were to sit by and not take any action against the U.S. tobacco companies knowing full well that they had been wronged? Now, I know that there are some Marshallese who are currently receiving nuclear compensation that would rather sit comfortably in the shade and "jingle the change in their tin cans" instead of trying to help themselves. But I also know that there are many more who would much prefer to do for themselves.

Webster’s dictionary defines a victim as "a person who is deceived or cheated." Clearly, the Marshallese fall within this category. But the difference is that the Marshalls has decided to do something about their unfortunate circumstance. Instead of becoming "professional victims" that continue to let others deceive and cheat them, the Marshallese people are saying "enough is enough." The Marshallese people are standing up tall and telling the world that they will not sit back and let fate and others write their history for them. Instead of being merely victims, the Marshallese people are saying, "our fate is in our hands."

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