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What is Free Association?

As consensus continues to build on the need to transform Puerto Rico’s status from a U.S. territory – sometimes called a colony – into a more dignified governing arrangement based on democratic principles, free association is increasingly seen as a consensus status in which supporters of all alternatives can get what they want.

Although many people are just starting to learn about free association, Congress has been talking about this unusual arrangement since at least 1986, when the first Compacts of Free Association were enacted into law.

After a few decades of congressional hearings involving the three Freely Associated States – the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands – today there is a great deal of clarity over what free association is, and what it is not.

In 2003, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands clearly described the arrangement in testimony submitted to a congressional subcommittee. As he explained:

” [T]he government-to-government relationship is based on the principle that the U.S. Constitution applies only to U.S. citizens and to the United States, and the Constitution of the Republic of the Marshall Islands applies only to RMI citizens and in the RMI. There is no co-mingling, overlapping or duality of sovereignty, nationality or citizenship in a manner that blurs the separate nationhood of our two countries. This ensures that free association is not colonialism by another name, or a territorial dependency in disguise.”

He continued:

“The foundation of this association, the feature that legitimizes it as non-colonial, is that the Compact of Free Association is terminable at will by either party. This is compatible with international law and with the principle that free association must respect and be consistent with the right of both our countries to national independence. Because this free association formula is legally structured as an alliance and not a territorial dependency, the Republic of the Marshall Islands is a member of the United Nations in its own name and right. The right of each party to terminate without the mutual consent of the other party is the feature that makes U.N. membership possible, notwithstanding the delegations of government powers under the Compact. This arrangement includes the so-called U.S. defense veto, which, by the way, has never unduly interfered with the exercise by the RMI of its foreign affairs powers as some predicted. Even if some provisions survive termination, the termination provisions give each government the power to end the association and conduct relations as totally independent nations with specific treaty rights subject to international law, but without a treaty of association.”

The Foreign Minister’s testimony provides clarity over several elements of free association:

  1. The U.S. Constitution does not apply to the Freely Associated States.
  2. There is no overlapping sovereignty, nationality, or citizenship.
  3. The relationship is between two independent countries.
  4. The Compact is terminable at will by either party.
  5. Each party may terminate the Compact without the mutual consent of the other party.
  6. There can be a defense veto, in which the U.S. could exercise control in the Freely Associated States’ foreign affairs.
  7. Each government has the power to end the association and conduct relations as totally independent nations, without a treaty of association.

The Marshallese Foreign Minister’s list is clear, and it is now well-established precedent.  The list is also a convenient resource upon which all parties can rely as the debate over Puerto Rico’s political status continues.
Read more from the 2003 Congressional hearing, “Reauthorizing the Compacts of Free Association with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.”

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