28 Jun 2007

Row develops over future of U.S. missile testing range at Marshall Islands Kwajalein Atoll

10:00 am on 28 June 2007

A row has developed over the future of the US missile testing range at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands as landowners refuse to accept rental terms offered by Washington.

Kwajalein Senator Tony deBrum also says landowners will not accept another 70 years of failing services and inhumane conditions.

Linda Skates has more.


The U.S. and the Marshall Islands government signed a deal in 2003, which could result in the extension of American operations at Kwajalein until 2086.

But, they're running into problems with landowners.

Kwajalein senator, Tony deBrum, and others are upset with what's happened.

"Our own government, the government of the Marshall Islands, represented to the landowners that they would not sign off on something with the United States, on any kind of extension, unless the landowners agreed which is constitutionally the correct thing to do. But, instead, they went ahead and agreed with the U.S. to extend the use of Kwajalein for another 70 years without the acceptance of the landowners."

The U.S. ambassador in Majuro, Clyde Bishop, says the agreement is legally valid.

The agreement certainly allows for the presence of the United States on the Kwajalein atoll until 2016. The agreement also extends the option to continue the United States' presence into the future.

The Marshall Islands government, which negotiates on behalf of the landowners, accepted an offer of 15 million U.S. dollars per year from the U.S. to lease Kwajalein but the landowners want 19 million dollars.

Our correspondent, Giff Johnson, says while the negotiations are conducted on a government to government basis, it is up to the landowners whether to accept the agreement.

There's no public land in the Marshall Islands. All land here is privately held so even though the U.S. and the Marshall Islands government have signed an agreement giving the U.S. use of Kwajalein up to the year 2086, it cannot be enforced unless the landowners sign what is known as a land use agreement.

Senator deBrum says it's not just the finances they've got concerns about.

He says the U.S. has pulled out of the full faith and credit provision in the agreement which is a big issue when landowners view Kwajalein as the target end of a very long missile shot.

It is not imprudent for the landowners to be cautious and say what if one of these things accidentally goes awry and hits something or someone or the community, what happens? They've removed the provisions that would have required for emergency federal assistance. They have so watered down the environmental requirements that the army itself sets its own standards.

He's also claiming that the two governments are working together to pressure the landowners.

We have discovered a rather remarkable communication between the American embassy and the United States state department, and the United States defence department which lays out their scheme on what they have agreed to do. The United States government and the Marshall Islands government have agreed to pressure the people of Kwajalein into agreeing to a new land use agreement by depriving them of even the basic necessities of life - power, water, sanitation services.

The U.S. ambassador rejects this completely.

Mr Bishop says the U.S. does not negotiate with the landowners and it's an internal matter for the Marshall Islands government.

There is no pressure being applied to the landowners to comply but the clarification of the whole issue is that the United States engages in a government to government agreement. We have engaged in that and have signed an agreement with the Republic of the Marshall Islands. At this particular point, if indeed it is an issue, it is an internal domestic issue.

The Marshall Islands Foreign Affairs minister was unavailable to comment and Mr deBrum remains unsatisfied.

He believes the government has breached the land use agreement.

We are seeking legal remedy to that and are consulting with legal counsel to see what we can do to at least get a declaration as to the status of the lease because it's quite possible that the court might agree with us and find that the actions of our own government have, in fact, breached the current land use agreement.

The U.S. is continuing to pay the rent for Kwajalein based on the current agreement.

But, because that deal has been rejected by the landowners, funds are accumulating in an account, as Mr Bishop explains.

At present time, because the landowners did not concur with the agreement that we signed, then the agreement we signed is not invoked, and so what is invoked presently is the previous agreement, which was 11 million dollars. The difference in terms of the amount between that and what we signed with the government has been put in escrow. It will remain in escrow until 2009 at which point there will be a determination made, mutually agreeable between the Republic of Marshall Islands and the government of the United States as to what will be done with those funds.

Once again, the landowners are locked out of a decision about what happens to the money despite the fact that it belongs to them.

Mr Bishop says it their expectation and certainly their hope is that prior to 2009, an agreement between the Republic of Marshall Islands and the Kwajalein landowners can be achieved.

Mr deBrum is warning, however, that if the situation doesn't improve, the land lease won't be renewed.