Marianas Variety

Last updateWed, 17 Jul 2019 12am







    Tuesday, July 16, 2019-2:42:01P.M.






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Our Oceania | A Sea of Norms

LAST month, the University of the South Pacific celebrated its 50th year of education by hosting scholars, researchers, and legal professionals from around the Pacific for a two-day workshop called “A Sea of Norms,” which discussed the challenges of creating well-adjusted legal systems in post-colonial island nations.

USP has 12 campuses on islands across the Pacific including Samoa, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Nauru, Niue, the Solomon Islands, and Tokelau. Lecture subjects ranged from Samoan law reform to the sovereignty dispute between Vanuatu and France over the islands of Mathew and Hunter to land alienation in the Solomon Islands.

The Marianas made an appearance as a topic of discussion. Dr. Sylvia Frain, a research fellow with the Pacific Media Center at Auckland University of Technology, delivered a lecture titled “(Inter)national legal frameworks in the Marianas Archipelago — the right to self-determination & the National Environmental Policy Act” in which she presented issues regarding land sovereignty in the Mariana Islands.

“I seek to add to the discussion of contemporary challenges to the (inter)national laws and norms of the Pacific,” she said. Frain parenthesizes “inter” because in the case of the Marianas, “the archipelago is rendered both part of the United States in using domestic laws and, at other times, international when using national laws.”

She began with Guam’s inability to exercise its right to self-determination laws in place affirming that right. Frain told Variety that just because on paper the U.S. affirms international law prohibiting colonialism, “that doesn’t mean the United States is adhering to [Guam’s] right to self-determination.”

She also presented the U.S. government’s inconsistent application of domestic law in the CNMI, her core example being the CNMI’s struggle to hold the US Navy accountable for violating the National Environmental Policy Act in its presentation of the Commonwealth Joint Military Training program, which would convert the northern two-thirds of Tinian and the entire island of Pagan into highly destructive live-fire training ranges.

“An insular area is using a domestic legal framework to try to ensure that the DoD adheres to its own federal domestic laws,” Frain explained. “Now we see despite the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal judge can say, ‘Yeah, [the Navy] followed it,’ even if there’s evidence to suggest otherwise.”

The Marianas’ issues fall nicely within the overall theme of the workshop; after decades (and in many cases, centuries) of colonialism, many islands still operate under legal systems left behind by colonizing powers. These laws often clash with the island community’s inherent value systems and day-to-day expectations, but revising colonial legal structures to better meet the needs of island nations is an unprecedented challenge that requires balancing traditional culture with a rapidly Westernizing world.

In Samoa, for example, lawmakers are trying to construct a legal framework that allows for community ownership over land which was privatized by German colonizers well over one hundred years ago. The issue was presented by Telei’ai Dr. Lalotoa Mulitalo, executive director of the Samoa Law Reform Commission.

This revision and others across the Pacific bring up a lot of questions, the most basic being whether the islanders want to work within the existing legal systems to reform laws even though that system was imposed from the outside. According to Frain, this can create problems because these legal systems were created by colonizers with the intention to disempower and disenfranchise standard citizens. In other words, if the end goal is a government created for and by islanders, the existing legal and political structure of newly-independent states may not have a lot to offer.

Despite the weight of these serious administrative and legal challenges, Frain says the workshop’s environment was one of mutual support for all island nations and peoples.

“I was overwhelmed by how grateful everyone was to learn about the situation in the Marianas,” she said. “Despite being part of the Pacific, people have no idea that any of this is happening and that these legal ambiguities are currently unfolding... And they were really concerned as legal professionals.”

If you have questions or comments about USP’s Sea of Norms workshop or any of the issues touched upon in this article, you can reach out to Sylvia Frain at