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The future prospects for American Samoa’s political status

Tapaau Dr. Daniel Aga, Executive Director of the ASG Office of Political Status at the U.N. meeting. [SN file photo]
“We cannot allow the political process to be solely dictated by others,” says Tapaau

In his presentation to a United Nation’s Decolonization regional seminar, ASG Office of Political Status, Constitution, and Federal Relations executive director, Tapaau Dr. Daniel Aga emphasized that the territory’s form of government going forward must be “firmly vested in the authority of the people of American Samoa.”

On behalf of Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga, Tapaau represented American Samoa’s perspective at the recent Decolonization Caribbean seminar hosted by St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The presentation covered four specific issues, according to a revised copy of Tapaau’s written presentation posted recently by the Decolonization Committee on its website. (See Samoa News June 2, 7 and 16 editions on reports covering the first three issues of the presentation.)

The final issue on Tapaau’s presentation focused on, “What are the future prospects for decolonization in American Samoa?”

For the Caribbean seminar, he said, the question is, “What are the Prospects for the Future for Decolonization in the Non- Self-Governing Territories?” (The UN considers American Samoa as one of the 16-remaining non-self-governing territories in the world.)

To help answer questions like these, Tapaau says Lolo established last year, by executive order, the “Office of Political Status, Constitutional Review, and Federal Relations” whose duties includes raising awareness in a non-partisan matter and working with government and the public on constitutional amendments or other political status issues that may be presented as referendums to the voters of American Samoa.

“No referendum or plebiscite is planned at this time,” he said adding that the governor also established an Advisory Council for the Office.  The Secretary of Samoan Affairs is Chair and the Attorney General is Co-Chair.

Tapaau explained the work conducted by his office, focusing early efforts on a long-term public education program by developing curriculum in the public schools, training teachers, and developing learning resources. There were also student forums and his office will continue its outreach to the workplace, villages, and will use various forms of media.

“Before initiating any change in our political status, it would be prudent to consult with the ‘Tama o le Atunuu’ or the ‘Fathers of the Country’ whether they are with the Office of Samoan Affairs, the Senate, or in traditional village or district councils,” he explained.  “The wisdom of women is a valuable resource as well.”

On the topic of options, he says the UN provides three options for a territory to demonstrate a full measure of self-government: Emergence as a sovereign independent State; Free Association with an independent State; or Integration with an independent State.

He pointed out that the UN recognizes that the “specific characteristics and the aspirations of the peoples of the Territories require flexible, practical and innovative approaches to the options for self-determination.... ”

“What does a flexible and innovative approach to self-determination entail? What qualitative considerations are there when considering definitions for a ‘full measure of self-government?’,” he asked.

“Without a flexible and innovative approach, prospects for decolonization in the non-self-governing territory of American Samoa are limited,” he told the gathering. “Otherwise, we would have to radically change the entire territorial framework.”

Another question posed by Tapaau is, “What are the chances of American Samoa engaging in an authentic political process?”

He said an authentic process would be “vested in the authority of the people” to freely choose its political status. He noted that American Samoa’s electorate has never had a political status plebiscite to freely choose the kind of political relationship it wants with the US.

“This means our form of government is vested in the authority of the US Congress and the US Executive but not in the authority of the people of American Samoa,” he said and explained that the 1924 federal law accepting the Deeds of Cession - 1900 for Tutuila and Aunu’u and 1904 for Manu’a - requires Congress to provide for a government for the islands but Congress has never passed an organic act to organize a government for American Samoa.

Instead of an organic act approved by Congress, American Samoa developed its constitution that was approved by the Secretary of Interior and by the voters in 1967, he said.

Additionally, the 1929 federal law “could mean changes in our internal governance or in our external relationship with the US.”

“To the extent the 1929 law is enacted to shape our internal local government, American Samoa could seek transfers of authority to strengthen local self-government,” he said. “In spite of having our own constitution, electing our Governor, and electing our own Legislature, there is still work to be done.”

For example, the Secretary of Interior still has a role in the veto-override process; still appoints the Chief Justice; and can still intervene in local court decisions.

Tapaau made clear to the audience that American Samoa understands the value of its partnership with the Department of Interior and respects the history of this relationship. However, the “people of American Samoa still felt a constitutional amendment was needed to, in effect, transfer the authority of the Secretary of Interior to the American Samoa Government.”

“This proposal did not make it past the local vote.  Even if it did, any amendment to American Samoa’s constitution requires [US] congressional approval,” he said.

Regarding political status option, he says the US constitution allows: independence, statehood, and the territorial option. Furthermore, all options should be considered.

According to Tapaau, any future territorial political status option for American Samoa would be based on two equally important considerations: keeping and maintaining a strong relationship with the United States; and protecting the Samoan way of life.

Tapaau noted that many lessons have been learned from Puerto Rico’s quest for a permanent political status. And Puerto Rico has had four plebiscites with a 5th one held this month where voters were given a choice of three options: independence/free association, statehood, or the current territorial status. (The Associated Press reports that last week’s 5th plebiscite had majority of voters opting for statehood, but there are also many voters who didn’t cast ballots.)

He says  that simply offering general categories seems insufficient because voters will want to know if these general categories address issues of importance to them. Furthermore, voters will need to know the specific risks or consequences within each option.

Tapaau then revealed some specific questions that individuals in American Samoa have asked. For example:

• What advantages would a change give us that we don’t already have?

• How can we be assured we will not be worse off than we are now?

• Will the US reduce its funding to us if we change?

• What will it mean if American Samoa chooses the status quo?

“Is a comprehensive or incremental approach to developing self-government the right one? Before deciding on which approach, the public will need to understand the pros and cons of each approach,” Tapaau said.

He also posed two other questions, “Do the people of American Samoa know what they want? What are their hopes and aspirations?” According to the executive director, his office has developed an aspirational set of principles pursuant to the rights of the American Samoan people to self-determination.

“Subject to an island-wide discussion and review, these principles would help ‘update’ and strengthen the legality and stability of our relationship with the US for the long term,” he said. He also noted that if the “people of American Samoa can “successfully negotiate an agreement based on these principles”, it would serve to:

• clarify the purposes, function, intentions and promises of the Deeds of Cession - and determine whether or not a new covenant is needed;

• establish whether American Samoa’s Constitution requires further explicit action to serve as the territory’s organic act;

• solidify the rights and make clear the responsibilities of the American Samoan people to its lands, marine and natural resources; • solidify rights to cultural heritage, and the specific role played by matai in American Samoa;

• limit the types of legislation that Congress can impose upon the people of the American Samoa;

• protect and strengthen the internal self-governance of the island consistent

with US laws; and

• protect the right to control immigration & customs.

He also says that a more formal political relationship between the US and American Samoa would support economic ties with a greater willingness by the federal government to:

• enact laws that promote investments, tax incentives and territory-specific economic federal policies

• enact waivers and exceptions to laws that recognize the unique geographic and physical needs of the islands as well as the impact of international treaties; and

• build a closer economic relationship between the United States and  American Samoa and determine appropriate and sustainable economic development of American Samoa’s islands.

“At all stages, we would need to consult with local leaders, the public, Samoan communities off-island, the Department of Interior, the US Executive branch, Congress, and even regional and international persons,” he said.

While there may be legal challenges in the federal courts, Tapaau declared that “we must ensure that our form of government is firmly vested in the authority of the people of American Samoa. This is our right and our duty. We have only to proclaim it.”

In closing he offered these final remarks: We recognize there are many truths in our relationship and destiny with the United States. As we navigate the waters of an uncertain future, we cannot allow the political process to be solely dictated by others or taken completely out of our hands. It is a struggle we cannot afford to lose because future generations depend on it. Still we believe ourselves to be fortunate.”

We are a people of great faith and we believe “o Samoa e muamua le Atua.”  - Samoa God is first,” he added.