Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Out of their depths

You got to admire the guts of the Government of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands to take on the mighty interests of the USofA. Once, of course, you figure out who and where they are. Most Americans wouldn't have a clue that they are the islands immediately north of Guam which, together with Guam, form the Marianas Island chain, the northern reaches of Micronesia. Oh, and that they are part of America.

The CNMI was never territory claimed or won by America. They were always independent, but being only tiny in size and population, they were always at the mercy of larger countries. The original inhabitants were no match for the likes of Spain and Germany, which spared for domination of them for hundreds of years. The local population is now saddled with names like Camacho and Guerrero and Underwood and Hofschneider as relics of those days.


After Germany lost the First World War, the League of Nations put the islands under the trusteeship of Japan, which was convenient and beneficial for Japan but you have to wonder what good it did the natives.


Then after Germany lost the Second World War, the United Nations took the trusteeship off Japan and gave it to the United States, which was convenient and beneficial for the United States, but you have to wonder what go
od it did the natives.

Giving in to the realpolitik of the times, the people of the CNMI ultimately decided to join the Americans by a negotiated treaty. Through this "Covenant", they became Americans in most part, particlularly with regard to foreign affairs and defense, though they retain their own immigration, tax and other autonomy. They tend to think, in the CNMI, that they retain rather more autonomy than the US usually allows.
And so it is with their offshore resources.

The CNMI considered it has sovereignty over the minerals and other resources of its submerged lands. And in this it is being more ambitious than first meets the eye. You see, the lands submerged off its islands are the deepest in the world; its submerged land is really, fair dinkum submerged. Saipan, the main, capitol island, is almost 11 kilometres from the depths of the Marianas Trench floor. That's almost 7 miles in the old tongue.

You might wonder, as I do, what they'd want with that anywa
y since most of it is too deep to be exploitable, now anyway. But you have assume that where there's a claim, there's something they know that we don't. Anyway, the US Supreme Court wouldn't have a bar of it. The following from today's Marianas Variety On-Line edition:
THE U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to review the appeal filed by the CNMI on the federal court ruling that the U.S. government has control over the commonwealth’s submerged lands.
The CNMI Attorney General’s Office civil division chief, James Livingstone, said “now that the litigation has ended, the administration is looking at other potential options to resolve this issue as favorably as possible for the commonwealth.”
Charles P. Reyes Jr., Gov. Benigno R. Fitial’s press secretary, described the high court’s decision as a “disappointment.”
But he said the administration remains hopeful that the CNMI will get reconsideration from either the federal executive or legislative branches.
“Although the court decision comes as a disappointment, there may still be interest in pursuing the issue through other means,” Reyes said. “Though the judicial remedy has been exhausted, we may still take up the matter with both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, through consultation and negotiation,” he added.
Reyes said the administration will work with Resident Rep. Pete A. Tenorio and the U.S. Department of the Interior “to make our concerns known and further address this issue.”
According to Reyes, “Many indigenous residents of the CNMI are still very interested in gaining more control over our submerged lands for economic and political reasons.”
The AGO filed a civil case on the issue of the submerged lands with the U.S. District Court of the NMI in 2003.
The court later ruled that the CNMI lost its sovereignty over the disputed submerged lands when it agreed to a political union with the United States in 1978 through the Covenant agreement.
The AGO appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
But the three-man panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling in Feb. 2005.
The panel stated that the Northern Marianas lost its title to the submerged lands when it agreed to U.S. sovereignty, adding that this was similar to what happened to California, Maine, Texas and Louisiana when they were admitted to the union.
The AGO then elevated the case to the nation’s highest court.
Livingstone, in his arguments, noted that “the United States gained a 50-year leasehold interest (with an option at no cost) to the entire island of Farallon de Medinilla and to two-thirds of the island of Tinian —one of only three islands with significant human populations in the NMI.”
He said if the Ninth Circuit’s decision is upheld, “the people also lost almost all of the submerged lands surrounding the connecting islands.”
He added, “If the panel’s decision is not changed, a tragedy will result. The people of the commonwealth will be divested not only of almost all their property but also their cultural identity.”
A bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate, S.1831, which seeks to give the Northern Marianas jurisdiction over its submerged lands but limited to three, and not 12, miles of the CNMI’s territorial sea.
The bill remains pending.

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