Marshall Islands

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 25, 2004

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a self-governing nation under the Compact of Free Association with the United States. The Constitution provides for executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The legislature consists of a 33-member Parliament (Nitijela), as well as a Council of Chiefs (Iroij), which serves a largely consultative function dealing with custom and traditional practice. In November, the Nitijela was elected in free and fair elections from lists of independent and party candidates. The President is elected by majority Nitijela vote and appoints his Cabinet from its membership. In 2000, the Nitijela elected Kessai Note to a 4-year term as President. The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, judges are appointed by the Cabinet, and past governments have attempted to influence the judiciary.

Under the Compact of Free Association, the United States is responsible for the country's defense and national security, and the country has no external security force. The national police under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and local police forces have responsibility for internal security. The civilian authorities maintained effective control of the security forces. There were no reports that security forces committed human rights abuses.

According to 2000 statistics, the population of approximately 57,000 was of Micronesian origin and was concentrated primarily on the Majuro and Kwajalein Atolls. The economy is mixed but heavily dependent on transfer payments from the United States, which totaled approximately $40 million during the year. Coconut oil and copra exports, a small amount of tourism, import and income taxes, an open ship registry, fresh tuna exports, a tuna loining plant, ship chandlering, and fishing licensing fees generated limited revenues. Economic growth in 2002 was approximately 4 percent, but government austerity measures have resulted in a decline in real wages for the past several years. The U.S. dollar is the national currency.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, and the law and the judiciary provide effective means of dealing with individual instances of abuse. Actions to improve the Attorney General's office and the independence of the judiciary improved the human rights situation. Violence against women and child abuse continued to be problems, and law enforcement agencies did not take adequate measures to improve prosecution of these cases.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports of the arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life committed by the Government or its agents.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution forbids such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Prison conditions, while Spartan, generally met international standards, and the Government permitted prison visits by independent human rights observers. Male juveniles and adults were detained separately. Female prisoners were held under house arrest. Pretrial detainees were not separated from the general prison population.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the Government generally observed these prohibitions. Warrants are required for arrests and are issued by the courts. Detainees may request bond immediately upon arrest for minor offenses; most serious offenses require the detainee to remain in jail until a hearing can be arranged, normally the morning after arrest. Nonetheless, the Chief Justice of the High Court acknowledged in 2001 that arbitrary detentions did occur. Since that time, the Government has augmented the Attorney General's staff and taken steps to improve coordination between the police and the Attorney General's office. There were no reports of arbitrary detention over 24 hours reported during the year.

There is a national police force and local police forces. Police officers do not carry firearms, and local mores generally result in police using the minimum force necessary to detain a suspect. There were no reports of significant police corruption; however, inexperience and limited training resulted in several significant cases, including rape cases, being dropped due to procedural problems.

Families had access to detainees, and detainees have the right to lawyers of their choice. There is a functioning system of bail, and the State provides a lawyer if the defendant is indigent. The Constitution and law do not prohibit forced exile; however, the Government did not employ this practice.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government generally respected this provision in practice. Although in the past, governments have attempted to influence the judiciary, there were no known incidents of executive pressure on the judiciary during the year. In August, the Government proposed and the Nitijela adopted legislation that updates rules of evidence, gives the judiciary more control over its funding, allows district and community courts to hear higher value cases, increases from $50 to $500 the definition of felony larceny, and increases pay for jurors. Since the election of President Note in 2000, the Government has increased judges' salaries by 20 percent to better attract and retain qualified judges. During the year, the Government appointed a foreign national to the High Court for a 10-year term; previously, judges were named to a 2-year term with a government option to renew the appointment for an additional 2 years. The Government cited this long-term appointment as evidence of its commitment to promoting judicial stability and leadership. The new appointee replaced a foreign national judge who was suspended in 2002 after he was charged with misappropriating government travel funds. The suspended judge denied the charges, and his court case was pending at year's end.

The judiciary consists of a Supreme Court with appellate jurisdiction, a High Court with general jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters and appellate jurisdiction over subordinate courts at the district and community levels, and a Traditional Rights Court with jurisdiction in cases involving matters of customary law and traditional practice. Few citizens were trained in the law. Therefore, the judicial system relied heavily on noncitizen public prosecutors and defense attorneys. Most lower court judges were citizens; the higher courts relied on noncitizen judges, in part to prevent conflicts of interest in the small, highly interrelated society.

The Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution prohibits such actions, and the Government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom.

There was one locally printed, privately owned newspaper, which published articles and opinions in both English and Marshallese. Regional publications that covered significant events were readily available. There were four private FM radio stations and one government-owned AM station. The private stations offered news broadcasts from the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Radio Australia as well as religious broadcasts. Live broadcasts of the legislative sessions were carried on the government station, which generally allowed both pro- and anti-government speakers to be heard, although there were some interruptions during strongly anti-government speeches. A cable television company broadcast a variety of foreign news and entertainment programs and occasional videotaped local events.

The Government did not restrict Internet access.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice.

For more detailed information, see the 2003 International Religious Freedom Report.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government generally respected them in practice.

In 2001, the Government enacted regulations restricting the operations of certain businesses to citizens. Efforts to correct abuses created in 1996 when the Government issued so-called investment passports (which conveyed Marshall Islands citizenship) to approximately 3,000 noncitizens continued, with the Government denying renewal in cases where the initial issuance appeared to be fraudulent.

Although not a signatory, the Government adheres to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and it cooperated with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The Government has not formulated a policy regarding refugees or asylum. However, it granted the only application for asylum received during the year, submitted by a citizen of the People's Republic of China. There were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. Executive power is centralized in the President and his Cabinet. The Nitijela and mayors are elected by secret ballot every 4 years by citizens 18 years of age and older. Elections for the 33-member Nitijela were held on November 17 following a 2-month campaign; President Kessai Note's United Democratic Party won a majority of the seats. The elections were open, and there were no serious allegations of electoral fraud. However, the complex electoral system, which grants voters the option of voting where they have land rights instead of where they reside, requires almost every polling place to provide for voters from many other districts. A significant number of absentee ballots also were cast in the November elections. As a result, several close elections generated formal complaints against election officials for alleged mishandling of ballots and other problems, including some allegations of favoritism. The complaints still were pending at year's end.

There are no restrictions on the formation of political parties, although many candidates preferred to run independently or

loosely aligned with informal coalitions. Political activity by foreigners is prohibited.

There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government and politics; however, traditional attitudes of male dominance, women's cultural responsibilities, traditionally passive roles, and the generally early age of pregnancies made it difficult for women to obtain political qualifications or experience. Three women ran for the Nitijela in November, and one was elected. Five women were members of the eight-seat House of Iroij. There were no female judges. Society is matrilineal, and those men and women who exercised traditional leadership and land ownership powers derived their rights either from their own positions in the family or from relationships based on their mother's and sister's lineage. However, the traditional authority exercised by women has declined with growing urbanization and movement of the population away from traditional lands.

There were only a few non-ethnic Marshallese who were citizens, and none were represented in the national government.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigations of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, but only a few local groups have been formed.

The women's nongovernmental organization Women United in the Marshall Islands (WUTMI) worked on women's, children's, and family issues and played a more significant role in social issues during the year than it has in the past.

No international human rights organization has expressed interest or concern or visited the country. A committee established in 2002 to form a local Red Cross chapter had not done so by year's end.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, place of birth, family status or descent, and the Government observed these provisions.


Spousal abuse was common. Domestic violence was not condoned in society, and most assaults occurred while the assailant was under the influence of alcohol. The Government's health office provided counseling for reported spousal and child abuse cases, but many cases apparently went unreported. Rape and assault are criminal offenses, but women involved in domestic violence were reluctant to prosecute spouses in the court system. Women's groups under the WUTMI umbrella publicized women's issues and promoted a greater awareness of women's rights. From March to April, WUTMI conducted a survey on spousal abuse. Preliminary results, which were reported in the press and discussed at a national WUTMI meeting, suggested that more than 80 percent of Marshallese women had been affected by some level of spousal abuse. The final survey report had not been published by year's end. Violence against women outside the family occurred, and women in urban centers risked assault if they went out alone after dark.

There is no legal age of consent. The law criminalizes only "forced" rape and does not specifically cite sexual assault, domestic violence, or sexual abuse. There was some national debate regarding criminalizing these acts; however, debate was hampered by cultural norms against discussion of these subjects.
Several highly publicized rape cases were not prosecuted due to a combination of factors, including cultural pressures, reluctance to press charges against relatives, and police procedural errors.

In September, the Nitijela made prostitution illegal; however, prostitution exists on the Majuro and Kwajalein Atolls. Organized prostitution was run by and catered to foreigners, primarily the crews of foreign fishing vessels. There were no specific reports of violence against prostitutes, although the Government assumed that it existed. There is no law against sex tourism, and none has been reported.

Sexual harassment is not prohibited by law and was not considered a serious problem.

The inheritance of property and of traditional rank is matrilineal, with women occupying positions of importance in the traditional system. No instances of unequal pay for equal work or of sex-related job discrimination were reported. However, while female workers were very prevalent in the private sector, many of them were in low-paying jobs with little hope of advancement.


The Government showed commitment to children's welfare through its programs of health care and free education, but these have not been adequate to meet the needs of the country's sharply increasing population.

Education is free, compulsory, and universal through eighth grade. There was no difference between the attendance rates of boys and girls.

It was estimated that up to 20 percent of elementary school-age children did not attend school on a regular basis. In many cases, this was because they lived too far away from a school or their families could not afford the monthly registration fee (which varied by school but averaged approximately $10) or incidental expenses. The Government did not enforce the compulsory education law. Admission to high school is by competitive examination; not all children qualified to attend. The Government's enrollment report indicated that only two-thirds of those completing eighth grade attended high school. Of that number, 50 percent--or one-third of those who started elementary school--eventually graduated. There were only three public high schools in the country: One each in Majuro, Jaluit and Wotje.

The Government provided subsidized essential medical services for all citizens, including children.

Child abuse and neglect are criminal offenses; however, public awareness of children's rights remained low. The law requires teachers, caregivers, and other persons to report instances of child abuse and exempts them from civil or criminal liability as a consequence of making such a report. However, there were few reports and few prosecutions. Child abuse and neglect were considered to be on the increase. During the year, four cases of sexual assault against minors aged 7 to 14 were reported to the Attorney General. At year's end, prosecutions were pending in three cases; one case was withdrawn because the parents did not want their child to testify. In July, two young men who sexually assaulted an infant in 2001 were sentenced to 10 years in prison for child abuse and sodomy.

Persons with Disabilities

There was no apparent discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, or the provision of other state services; however, there were no building codes and no legislation mandating access for persons with disabilities.

There were approximately 50 persons who could be medically defined as psychotic. When these individuals demonstrated dangerous behavior, they were imprisoned and visited by a doctor.

There were no reports of discrimination against persons with mental disabilities.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for the right of free association in general, and the Government interpreted this right as allowing the existence of labor unions, although none have been formed to date.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

There is no legislation concerning collective bargaining or trade union organization. However, there were no impediments to the organization of trade unions or to collective bargaining. Wages in the cash economy were determined by market factors in accordance with the minimum wage and other laws.

The Constitution does not provide for the right to strike, and the Government has not addressed this issue. There were no strikes during the year.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Bonded Labor

The Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude, and there was no evidence of its practice among citizens of the country. Officials suspected that some forced or bonded labor existed among the illegal alien population; however, they were unable to uncover specific cases during the year.

The law does not specifically prohibit forced and bonded labor by children; however, such practices were not known to occur.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

Children typically were not employed in the wage economy, but some assisted their families in fishing, agriculture, and other small-scale domestic enterprises. There is no law or regulation setting a minimum age for employment of children. The Government

has not ratified International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

A government-specified minimum wage of $2.00 for both government and private sector employees is established by law. In 1999, the government approved a lower minimum wage of $1.50 per hour for employees at the country's tuna loining plant to encourage investment in the plant, a major employer. That minimum wage remained in effect for plant employees during the year. The minimum wage was not adequate to maintain a decent standard of living for a worker and family. However, in the subsistence economy, extended families were expected to help less fortunate members, and there were often several wage earners to support each family. The Ministry of Resources and Development oversees minimum wage regulations, and its oversight was regarded as adequate. Foreign employees and Marshallese trainees of private employers who had invested in or established a business in the country were exempt from minimum wage requirements. This exemption did not affect a significant segment of the workforce.

There is no legislation concerning maximum hours of work or occupational safety and health. On Sunday, most businesses were closed, and persons generally refrained from working.

A government labor office makes recommendations to the Nitijela on working conditions, such as the minimum wage, legal working hours and overtime payments, and occupational health and safety standards in accordance with ILO conventions. The office periodically convenes board meetings that are open to the public. No legislation specifically gives workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their continued employment, and no legislation protects workers who file complaints about such conditions.

The law protects foreign workers in the same manner as citizens.

f. Trafficking in Persons

The law does not prohibit specifically trafficking in persons; however, there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country during the year. A series of articles in the U.S. press in 2002 alleged abusive labor situations for some Marshallese workers recruited for low-wage jobs in the United States; there were no further reports of such incidents during the year. To address such abusive recruitment practices, December revisions to the Compact of Free Association included a requirement that labor recruiters register with the Government and disclose the terms and conditions of the employment offered.