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Our Oceania: ‘Guam lacks sovereignty, which is a human right’

FOLLOWING World War II, several member states of the United Nations composed a list of non-self-governing territories, or regions “whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government,” forging the first step in an ongoing effort to decolonize the world. And there were many familiar names on that list in 1946: Greenland, Puerto Rico, Kenya, Alaska, British Hong Kong, and Jamaica, among others.

Mumun Linahyan photo

Of the over 50 non-self-governing territories that once existed, seventeen still remain: Western Sahara; Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; Gibraltar; the Falkland Islands; Angiulla; Bermuda; the British Virgin Islands; the Cayman Islands, Montserrat; the Turks and Caicos Islands; the Pitcairn Islands; Tolekau; French Polynesia; New Caledonia; American Samoa, the United States Virgin Islands; and, of course, our big brother to the south, Guam.

How and why do 17 colonies endure to this day, despite decades of decolonization initiatives? Each case is different, but much can be learned about the status and struggle of a modern colony by looking to Guam, where the residents’ disempowerment is a source of increasing tension.

“Guam lacks sovereignty, which is a human right,” said Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero. “So as long as Guam is an unincorporated territory of the United States, our human rights are being denied.”

The U.N. recognizes three political status options for non-self-governing territories like Guam: independence, statehood, and free association (a relationship similar to that between the U.S. and the CNMI). Leon Guerrero is a co-chair of the Independence for Guam Task Force and a leader in the Independent Guahan movement.

Hypothetically, independence, statehood, and free association could each offer benefits to the people of Guam; but these benefits would require negotiation with the United States and, according to Leon Guerrero, without first becoming independent, Guam would lack any substantial bargaining power. She believes that contemporary efforts toward statehood or free association would likely meet the same insurmountable obstacles that led to the failure of the 1987 Guam Commonwealth Act.

“There were issues that couldn’t be agreed upon in the negotiation process and so Congress denied Guam commonwealth status,” she explained. “They can deny us the ability to be a state — which is something they’ve done time and time again in the case of Puerto Rico — and they can choose not have a freely associated relationship with us unless it’s completely on their terms…you can’t force a country like the U.S. to have a freely associated relationship.”

“But you can say to them, ‘You need to allow these people to be free if they want to be free,’” she pointed out. “So essentially with Guam’s three status options, independence is the only one where we would have real power to go to the international community and say ‘Hey, Congress is denying us our desire for independence.’ Because according to the U.N. charter, an administrating power or colonizer like the United States can’t deny people independence if that’s something they want or choose.”

In 2006, Leon Guerrero testified about Guam’s political status before the United Nations Special Political and Decolonization Committee. She has returned multiple times since, though her focus remains on the local community, where she says education is a major obstacle between Guam and a more empowered political status.

“A lot of it is that we’re not taught about it in school,” she said. “It hasn’t been a top political issue for many years.”

However, increased militarization on Guam has brought its lack of sovereignty back into the public eye.

“Many of us have taken the position that the military shouldn’t be allowed to expand its presence on the island when the people have yet to exercise self-determination,” she said, “because what the military is doing is without our consent.”

In 2009, the military announced its plan to convert Pagat, the site of an ancient Chamorro village, into a firing range to be used for training purposes. The military’s intentions were laid out in a 10,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement released by the Department of Defense, and the people of Guam were originally given only 45 days to comment with concerns (this deadline was later extended to 90 days). Community members banned together to read and digest the enormous document in the limited timeframe, forming a group that would eventually be called We Are Guahan. 

Leon Guerrero says that We Are Guahan’s struggle to save Pagat revealed the extent to which the people of Guam were subjugated by the United States.

“If you’re going to take more land, if you’re going to take culturally significant areas and turn them into firing ranges and the people are saying “No, we don’t want that,” and you’re going to do it anyway, there is no greater illustration of Guam’s colonial status, disempowerment and lack of voice,” she said. “So for us, the solution is that we need to be able to change our political status in order to have a voice in these really important decisions that will affect the rest of our lives.”