Marshall Islands

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 11, 2008

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a constitutional republic with a population of approximately 56,000. In November voters elected the Parliament (Nitijela) in generally free and fair multiparty elections. The Parliament was scheduled to elect a president in January 2008. The civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.

The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, prison conditions, government corruption, violence against women, child abuse, and lack of worker protections were areas of concern.


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

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions did not meet international standards. Lighting, ventilation, and sanitation were inadequate, and there was no program to ensure regular access to outside activity. Security was poor.

Some male juveniles were held together with the general prison population. There were no specialized prison facilities for female prisoners, including juveniles; they generally were held under house arrest. Some female offenders were held in a separate police substation. Pretrial detainees were not separated from the general prison population.

There were no requests for prison visits by independent human rights observers. In the past the government allowed visits by the media and foreign diplomatic representatives without interference.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the police force, and the government has effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. There were no reports of impunity involving the police force during the year.

Arrest and Detention

Under the constitution and law, a warrant issued by a court is required for an arrest if there is adequate time to obtain one. The courts have interpreted this provision to exempt situations such as a breach of the peace or an ongoing felony. There was a functioning system of bail, and 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. Detainees have the right to lawyers of their choice, and the government provides a lawyer if the defendant is indigent. Families had access to detainees.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence in practice.

The High Court chief justice, with foreign assistance, continued work on implementation of a multiyear judicial training program and improvements in trial procedures.

Trial Procedures

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

Defendants can choose either a bench trial or a four-member jury trial. In recent years defendants increasingly opted for jury trials, which had a higher rate of acquittals. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and have the right to counsel. They may question witnesses, examine government-held evidence, and appeal convictions.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There is no separate judiciary in civil matters, but there are administrative remedies for alleged wrongs as well as judicial remedies within the general court system.

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.

On October 12, supporters of an opposition party accused police forces of destroying political signs placed on private property. The following week the property owners filed a civil suit against a police officer accused of destroying the signs. The case was pending at year's end.

Internet Freedom

There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

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.

Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were no reports of societal abuse or discrimination against religious groups, including anti-Semitic acts. There were few known individuals of Jewish background in the country.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2007 International Religious Freedom Report.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.

The law does not prohibit forced exile, but the government did not employ it.

Protection of Refugees

The laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the country is not a signatory of these instruments. The government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. In practice the country has almost no history of refugees or asylum seekers.

Stateless Persons

The country has one habitually resident de facto stateless person. The law does not provide a specific way for stateless persons to gain citizenship. The stateless resident has not been subjected to discriminatory treatment, access to services, or application of the law.

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

The law provides citizens the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Executive power is centralized in the president and his cabinet. The legislature consists of the Nitijela and a council of chiefs (Iroij), the latter of which serves a largely consultative function dealing with custom and traditional practices. Citizens 18 years of age and older elect the 33-member Nitijela and mayors by secret ballot every four years.

The most recent elections for the Nitijela were held in November. There were many problems on election day in the major population center of Majuro, resulting in many voters waiting more than five hours to cast their ballots. In addition, some ballot boxes were recounted on the initiative of the chief electoral officer, which caused accusations of impropriety and assertions that the boxes should have been reopened only with a court order. Nevertheless, a team of independent election observers from the Pacific Islands Forum stated in their initial report that the election, while poorly managed, was conducted in a democratic manner, enabling voters to exercise their will freely.

Individuals and parties can freely declare their candidacy and stand for election. There are no restrictions on the formation of political parties, although many candidates prefer to run independently or loosely aligned with informal coalitions.

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. There was one woman in the 33-member Nitijela and four women in the 12-seat House of Iroij. There were no female judges, but the chief public defender was a woman. There were a number of women in prominent appointed government positions, including the secretary of education, secretary of health, acting secretary of foreign affairs, director of the Social Security Administration, and banking commissioner.

There were no members of minorities in the legislature.

Government Corruption and Transparency

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The World Bank's worldwide governance indicators reflect that corruption was a serious problem. Budgetary problems persisted, but the government continued to make steady improvements, and auditors found fewer faults than in previous years.

Public officials are not subject to financial disclosure laws. The Attorney General's Office is responsible for investigating cases of alleged corruption, but few cases were prosecuted. No high-level elected official has ever been indicted for corruption. Voters tend to look to representatives for financial assistance, which pressured elected officials to use government authority to provide patronage to extended family members and supporters. This frequently led to allegations of nepotism in government hiring, especially for teachers, where studies found serious differences between teacher pay and qualification.

The law does not provide specifically for public access to government information. Although there is no specific statutory basis for denying such information, the government held that the burden for overcoming a denial of access rests with the public, and a court filing showing the reason the information is required was often necessary.

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

Human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, but few local groups existed. The government was not always responsive to the concerns of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The NGO Women United Together in the Marshall Islands (WUTMI) worked on women's, children's, and family issues and played a significant role in social issues.

Section 5 Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, language, national or social origin, place of birth, and family status or descent, and the government generally observed these provisions.


Rape and assault are criminal offenses, and the government enforced the law effectively. The law establishes penalties of up to 25 years' imprisonment for first-degree sexual assault. Spousal abuse was common; most assaults occurred while the assailant was under the influence of alcohol. According to a 2003 WUTMI survey, more than 80 percent of women had been affected by spousal abuse. Violence against women outside the family also occurred, and women in urban centers risked assault if they went out alone after dark. Police generally responded to reports of rape and domestic assault, and the government's health office provided counseling in reported spousal and child abuse cases. However, most observers believed that few sexual offenses were prosecuted, since cultural constraints discouraged victims from reporting such crimes to the police. During the year one sexual assault case was brought before the High Court; at year's end it was pending.

The courts have promulgated rules designed to protect women filing rape charges during court testimony, and women's groups under the WUTMI umbrella continued to publicize women's issues and promote a greater awareness of women's rights.

Prostitution is illegal but continued to occur, particularly on the Majuro and Kwajalein atolls. Organized prostitution on Majuro, run primarily by foreigners, no longer catered only to the crews of foreign fishing vessels. There were no specific reports of violence against prostitutes, although the government assumed that it existed. The government prosecuted and expelled several persons who had overstayed their visas, could show no income or other evidence of support, and were alleged to be involved in prostitution.

Although not legally prohibited, no sex tourism was reported.

Sexual harassment is not prohibited by law, but it was not considered a widespread or serious problem.

The inheritance of property and traditional rank is matrilineal, with women occupying positions of importance in the traditional system, although control of property often was delegated to male family members on behalf of female landowners. Several educated women held prominent positions, particularly in government; however, while female workers were very prevalent in the private sector, many were in low-paying jobs with little prospect for advancement. The traditional authority exercised by women has declined with growing urbanization and movement of the population away from traditional lands.


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

Education was universal and compulsory to age 18, and the national government did not charge school fees. It was estimated that up to 20 percent of children did not attend elementary 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 annual registration fee (which varied by school but averaged approximately $10) or incidental expenses. The lack of school lunch programs in most public schools was cited as another factor that contributed to absenteeism and poor performance. There were not enough high school facilities to accommodate all high-school-age children. Admission to high school continued to be by competitive examination. The government's enrollment report indicated that only two-thirds of those completing eighth grade attended high school. According to a 2005 World Bank report, approximately 50 percent of high school students--or one-third of those who started elementary school--eventually graduated.

The government provided subsidized essential medical services for all citizens, including children. Boys and girls had equal access to these services.

Child abuse and neglect are criminal offenses, but public awareness of children's rights remained low, and child abuse and neglect were considered increasingly common. Convictions for violation are punishable by up to 25 years in prison, depending on the degree of the offense. A law passed in September sets 18 years as the minimum age of consent for sexual activity. 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. Nonetheless, there were few reports or prosecutions.

Trafficking in Persons

The law does not specifically prohibit trafficking in persons; however, there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities, and there are no restrictions on the right of such persons to vote or participate in civic affairs. There was no apparent discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, or the provision of other state services; however, there were no building codes and no legislation mandating access for such persons. The government provided minimal support for persons with mental disabilities.

Persons who could be medically defined as psychotic were imprisoned with the general prison population and visited by a doctor. When prison officials protested the disruptions caused by this practice, other arrangements, such as house arrest, were made.

There is no government agency specifically charged with protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The attorney general is responsible for handling court cases involving complaints of discrimination against persons with disabilities, but no such cases were brought during the year.

National Minorities

There were reports that discrimination against Chinese nationals increased. The government was accused of selectively enforcing laws, especially immigration laws, against migrants from the People's Republic of China (PRC) while ignoring similar violations from other nationalities. There were allegations that immigration officers seized PRC passports from their holders at the airport. The owners of these passports were later detained by immigration enforcement officers and were unable to produce their documentation because their passports had been "lost" by officials at the airport. Police then arrested them for being in the country without documentation.

Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination

Some ethnic Chinese reported being threatened or attacked based on their race and receiving regular racial slurs. Other ethnic Chinese stated it was common for taxi drivers to refuse to stop for Chinese passengers. It was not uncommon to hear Marshallese complaining of "too many foreigners, especially Chinese."

There were no accounts of societal violence based on sexual orientation or HIV/AIDS infection. There are no enforced laws criminalizing homosexuality. In general homosexuals were accepted in society. There was some cultural stigma attached to HIV infection, but NGOs and the government conducted campaigns to provide HIV/AIDS education and encourage testing for the disease.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law 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. With few major employers, there were few opportunities for workers to unionize, and the country had no history or culture of organized labor.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

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

The law does not provide for the right to strike, and the government has not addressed this issue.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution prohibits involuntary servitude, and there were no reports of its practice among citizens. Officials suspected that some forced or compulsory labor existed among the illegal alien population.

The law does not specifically prohibit forced and compulsory labor by children; however, there were no reports that such practices occurred.

d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law establishes a minimum wage of two dollars per hour for both government and private sector employees. (The U.S. dollar is used as the national currency.) The national minimum wage did not provide 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 often were several wage earners to support each family. The Ministry of Resources and Development adequately enforced the minimum wage regulations. Foreign employees and local 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.

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, and the office periodically convenes board meetings that are open to the public. 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. 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.