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2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Marshall Islands

Publisher United States Department of State
Author Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Publication Date 11 March 2010
Cite as United States Department of State, 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Marshall Islands, 11 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4b9e52dac.html [accessed 22 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 11, 2010

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a constitutional republic with a population of approximately 65,000. In 2007 voters elected the parliament (Nitijela) in generally free and fair multiparty elections. On October 21, a vote of no confidence in the parliament removed Litokwa Tomeing from presidential power. On October 26, the parliament elected speaker Jurelang Zedkaia as president. 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.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

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.

One prisoner reportedly died at a temporary holding facility on Ebeye Island. An investigation into the death was pending at year's end.

According to a High Court official, the country's only national prison on Majuro Atoll held 50 inmates as of December 21. There were no specialized prison facilities for female prisoners, including juveniles; they generally were held under house arrest, although some female offenders were held in a separate police substation. Some male juveniles were held together with the general prison population. Pretrial detainees were not separated from the general prison population.

There were no requests for prison visits by independent human rights observers.

In November the government completed renovation on half of the prison on Majuro Atoll and transferred prisoners with the worst criminal records to the newly renovated space. During the first night of operation, prisoners destroyed the new facility and 17 prisoners escaped. Police located the escapees and returned them to custody. At year's end all prisoners were housed in the substandard portion of Majuro jail pending renovation of the entire facility, which was expected to begin once the parliament allocates funds in early 2010.

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 Procedures and Treatment While in 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 a felony in progress. The law provides detainees with the right to a prompt judicial determination regarding the legality of the detention, and authorities generally respected this right and informed detainees promptly of the charges against them. 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. In March Chief Justice Carl Ingram criticized the government for the unlawful detention of Bai Lanej, a defendant who was held in a Majuro prison for 13 months without a court hearing. Detainees were allowed access to a lawyer of their choice and if indigent, to one provided by the state. 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.

Trial Procedures

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

Defendants may choose either a bench trial or a four-member jury trial. Defendants normally 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. The constitution extends these rights to all citizens.

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, including human rights abuses, 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. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to ensure freedom of speech and of the press.

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. For most citizens, however, Internet access was limited by small bandwith, slow connections, and high prices. Internet access was the most expensive in the world, according to visiting International Monetary Fund and World Bank representatives.

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 Jews in the country.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2009 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 occasion did not arise during the year for government cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

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

Protection of Refugees

The country is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Its laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and 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.

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.

On October 26, the legislature elected Jurelang Zedkaia as president after a no-confidence vote on October 21 removed President Litokwa Tomeing from power.

The most recent elections for the Nitijela were held in November 2007. 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. A team of independent election observers from the Pacific Islands Forum stated in its initial report that the election, while poorly managed, was conducted in a democratic manner, enabling voters to exercise their will freely. A February 2008 report by a government-appointed independent commission of inquiry placed the blame for the marred election on interference in civil service hiring procedures by the then minister of internal affairs, which led to unqualified individuals managing the election process.

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 preferred 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 and 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, who served as minister of health, and four women in the 12-seat House of Iroij. There were a number of women in prominent appointed government positions, including those of secretary of education, minister and secretary of health, secretary of foreign affairs, Social Security Administration director, banking commissioner, and chief public defender.

There were no members of minorities in the legislature.

Section 4 Official Corruption and Government 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. World Bank indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem. Budgetary problems persisted, but independent auditors gave the government an unqualified audit for 2008, noting improvements.

Public officials are not subject to financial disclosure laws. The Attorney General's Office is responsible for investigating cases of alleged corruption. No cases were prosecuted during the year. 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 qualifications. Officials also have used their positions to protect family members from prosecution for alleged wrongdoing.

The individual who was appointed chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) board in 2008 was removed, an action that appeared to resolve the conflict of interest between the chairmanship and the business affairs of the country's largest private firm. There were no known developments in the attorney general's investigation into the circumstances surrounding the firing of an EPA employee after he commented on the conflict of interest. In addition the minister of justice, who had also been associated with the same firm, resigned from the cabinet and rejoined the firm, thus removing conflict-of-interest concerns.

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 5 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 government cooperated with international governmental organizations and permitted visits by UN representatives and other organizations.

Section 6 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.

Women

The law criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, and the government generally enforced the law effectively. However, most observers believed that few sexual offenses were prosecuted, since cultural constraints discouraged victims from reporting such crimes to the police. The law establishes penalties of up to 25 years' imprisonment for first-degree sexual assault.

The law prohibits domestic violence, and the government generally enforced the law when incidents were reported to officials. The law establishes penalties for domestic abuse in the same category as assault and battery. Spousal abuse was common; most assaults occurred while the assailant was under the influence of alcohol. According to a government survey published in the Marshall Islands Journal in October, more than 70 percent of female spouses had been abused during an unspecified time period. 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. According to a High Court official, no rape cases were filed in the country during the year; of the four previous sexual assault cases brought before the High Court, two resulted in convictions and two, acquittals.

The courts have promulgated rules designed to protect women filing rape charges during court testimony, and women's groups under the NGO Women United Together in the Marshall Islands continued to publicize women's issues and promote greater awareness of women's rights.

Prostitution is illegal but reportedly occurred at low levels on the Majuro and Kwajalein atolls. No reports of prostitution were filed, and no cases were brought before the courts during the year.

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

Couples and individuals had the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children and had the information and means to do so free from discrimination. Access to information on contraception, and skilled attendance at delivery and in postpartum care were widely available. Women and men were given equal access to diagnostic services and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

Women generally enjoyed the same rights as men under family law and in the judicial system. Only women may own land. The inheritance of property and traditional rank is matrilineal, with women occupying important positions in the traditional system, although control of property often was delegated to male family members on behalf of female landowners. Tribal chiefs are the traditional authorities in the country; customarily, a chief is the oldest son or husband of the female landowner. The traditional authority exercised by women has declined with growing urbanization and movement of the population away from traditional lands. While female workers were prevalent in the private sector, many were in low-paying jobs with little prospect for advancement.

Children

The country provided universal birth registration, and citizenship was derived both by birth within the country's territory and from one's parents.

Education was universal and compulsory to age 18, and the national government did not charge tuition fees, but 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 (the U.S. dollar is the national currency), or incidental expenses. The lack of school lunch programs in public schools was cited as another factor that contributed to absenteeism and poor performance.

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. 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.

The minimum age of consensual sex is 14. The country's statutory rape law provides penalties of up to 25 years' imprisonment. There are no laws addressing child pornography.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities. 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. Authorities declared November 15-21 as "Disability Week" to spread awareness of the rights and concerns of persons with disabilities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

In contrast with previous years, there were no known reports of the government selectively enforcing immigration laws against migrants from the People's Republic of China (PRC) and no reports of immigration officials seizing PRC passports from their holders at the airport and arresting them.

Some ethnic Chinese reported being threatened or attacked based on their race and receiving regular racial slurs. In July a Chinese ship captain was assaulted in Majuro by a gang of local men. No arrests were made in connection with the incident. The local press reported that attacks on Chinese sailors by youth gangs were common. Other ethnic Chinese stated it was common for taxi drivers to refuse to stop for Chinese passengers.

A law requires that employers who hire foreign workers make monetary contributions into a fund that provides job training for citizens. While many considered the law discriminatory against foreign workers, employers were willing to pay the fee in order to hire technically skilled labor, which was not widely available in the country.

Societal Abuses, Discrimination, and Acts of Violence Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

There is no known law criminalizing homosexual conduct. There were no known lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations or marches in the country. There were no reports of official or societal discrimination against groups based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

There were no accounts of societal violence based on HIV/AIDS infection. There was some cultural stigma attached to HIV infection, and NGOs and the government conducted campaigns to provide HIV/AIDS education and encourage testing for the disease.

Section 7 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. With a small number of major employers, there were few opportunities for workers to unionize, and the country had a limited history and culture of organized labor. In January public school teachers formed the country's first labor union. The 110-member union did not engage in negotiation or collective bargaining during the year, and there were no reports of government restrictions on activity.

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

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.

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 it was common for children to assist their families in fishing, agriculture, retailing, and other small-scale enterprises.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law establishes a minimum wage of $2.00 per hour for both government and private-sector employees. 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 government did not conduct any inspections of workplace health and safety conditions during the year. The law protects foreign workers in the same manner as citizens.

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