Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2005 - Marshall Islands

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 8 March 2006
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2005 - Marshall Islands , 8 March 2006, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
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.

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 8, 2006

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a constitutional democracy with a population of approximately 56 thousand. The constitution provides for executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The legislature consists of a 33-member parliament (Nitijela) and a council of chiefs (Iroij), which serves a largely consultative function dealing with custom and traditional practice. In November 2003 voters elected the Nitijela in free and fair elections. The president is elected by majority Nitijela vote and appoints his cabinet from its membership. In January 2004 the Nitijela elected President Kessai Note to a second four-year term. The civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.

The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were problems in a few areas. The following human rights problems were reported:

  • poor prison conditions
  • government corruption
  • violence against women and child abuse


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 law 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. As of December all of the 45 male prisoners were housed in a single facility attached to police headquarters, consisting of 3 interconnected rooms and 4 small cells. On-duty police officers also served as guards, separated from the jail area by a closed door. Lighting, ventilation, and sanitation were inadequate, and there was no program in place to ensure regular access to outside activity. Security was poor. In January six prisoners, including a convicted murderer, escaped by breaking through a storeroom door; however, all were recaptured by the next day.

Some male juveniles were held together with adults; as juvenile crimes increased in number and seriousness over the past several years, the courts tried more male juveniles as adults and ordered them held with the general prison population. Pretrial detainees were not separated from the general prison population. There were no prison facilities for female prisoners, including juveniles; they were held under house arrest.

The government permitted annual prison visits by independent human rights observers.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

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

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

There are local police forces and a national police force under the Ministry of Justice. Police officers do not carry firearms and generally used the minimum force necessary to detain a suspect. Although there were some instances of police corruption, including the disappearance of evidence in a drug case, it was not widespread. The Ministry of Justice appointed a former police officer to the position of chief of investigations in the attorney general's office to handle allegations of police abuse and corruption.

Arrest and Detention

The courts issue warrants, which are required for arrests. 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.

Families had access to detainees, and detainees have the right to lawyers of their choice. There is a functioning system of bail, and the government provides a lawyer if the defendant is indigent.

There were no reports of political detainees.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected this provision in practice.

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 customary law and traditional practice. The cabinet appoints judges.

Few citizens were trained in the law, and 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 chief justice of the High Court is a foreign national appointed for a 10-year term.

During the year the High Court chief justice, with foreign assistance, continued work on development of a judicial training program and improvements in trial procedures.

Trial Procedures

The law 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, to question witnesses, to access government-held evidence, and to appeal convictions.

Political Prisoners

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.

2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respected these rights in practice and did not restrict academic freedom or the Internet. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to ensure freedom of speech and of the press.

During the year the government granted permission for the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Women United Together in the Marshall Islands (WUTMI) to broadcast its outreach programs on the government-owned radio station. Previously the government had denied such permission.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were few known individuals of Jewish background in the country, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2005 International Religious Freedom Report.

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

The law provides for these rights, and the government generally respected them in practice.

The law does not prohibit forced exile; however, the government did not employ this practice.

Protection of Refugees

Although not a signatory, the government adhered to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and it cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in assisting refugees and asylum seekers. The government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees; however, it has granted asylum in the past.

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 held on the basis of universal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Executive power is centralized in the president and his cabinet. Citizens 18 years of age and older elect the Nitijela and mayors by secret ballot every 4 years. Elections for the 33-member Nitijela were held in November 2003; President Kessai Note's United Democratic Party won a majority of the seats, and the Nitijela reelected him in January 2004.

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 2003 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 courts upheld the decisions of the electoral commission in all cases except one still pending on appeal before the Supreme Court at year's end. Complainants protested the courts' reluctance to overturn the commission; the attorney general's office noted that disinterested, foreign-national judges heard several of the appeals. In August the government appointed a new electoral commissioner.

There are no restrictions on the formation of political parties, although many candidates prefer to run independently or loosely aligned with informal coalitions. The law prohibits political activity by foreigners.

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 1 woman in the Nitijela and 4 women in the 12-seat House of Iroij. There were no female judges, but the chief public defender was a woman. Society is matrilineal, and traditional leadership and land ownership powers generally are derived from one's mother's lineage. The traditional authority exercised by women has declined with growing urbanization and movement of the population away from traditional lands; nonetheless, many observers believed women continued to be a significant social force.

There were several hundred non-ethnic Marshallese who were citizens. Only one, who served as an ambassador at large, was a member of the national government.

Government Corruption and Transparency

According to the general audit report of 2003, performed by an independent accounting firm, government corruption was a problem, including instances of misuse of public funds and irregularities in the collection of certain taxes. The attorney general's office is responsible for investigating cases of alleged corruption, but only a few cases have been prosecuted. In 2003 the auditor general and the finance minister were replaced and the Finance Ministry reorganized in an effort to increase accountability.

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

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 have been formed. The government was not always responsive to NGOs' concerns. The women's NGO WUTMI worked on women's, children's, and family issues and played a significant role in social issues.

5. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

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


Spousal abuse was common. Domestic violence was not condoned, and 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 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, 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. Most observers believe that few sexual offenses are prosecuted because cultural constraints may discourage victims from reporting such crimes to the police. 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, increased significantly during the year and 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.

There is no law against sex tourism, but none has been reported. Sexual harassment is not prohibited by law but was not considered a widespread or serious problem.

The inheritance of property and of traditional rank is matrilineal, with women occupying positions of importance in the traditional system. Many 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 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 was compulsory and universal, and the national government did not charge school fees. However, individual schools were permitted to charge registration fees to help support their programs, and some schools did so. Despite government shortcomings in enforcing the existing compulsory education law, in August 2004 the Nitijela passed a law that expanded compulsory education from 6- to 14-year-olds to 4- to 18-year-olds. The plan was to enroll 5-year-olds in kindergarten as a first step; however, the government lacked the resources to implement the increased mandate. 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. Despite the 2004 law extending compulsory education through age 18, there were not enough high schools to accommodate all high-school-age children. Admission to high school continued to be 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. Approximately 50 percent of high school students – or one-third of those who started elementary school – eventually graduated.

There were five public high schools in the country: two in Majuro and one each on Jaluit, Kwajalein, and Wotje. In addition there were a dozen private high schools, which were open to all who were able to pay the private school tuition. The government provided subsidized essential medical services for all citizens, including children.

In May the Nitijela enacted legislation specifying age 16 as the minimum age of consent for sexual activity. Convictions for violation of the law are punishable by up to 25 years in prison, depending on the degree of the offense. 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. In February a foreigner was convicted of attempted rape and attempted incest against his minor daughter, a citizen of the country, and was sentenced to 8 to 15 years' imprisonment. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which scheduled a hearing for spring 2006.

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.

Persons with Disabilities

There was no apparent discrimination against persons with 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 persons with disabilities.

There were approximately 50 persons who could be medically defined as psychotic. When these individuals demonstrated dangerous behavior, they were imprisoned with the general prison population and visited by a doctor. On occasions when prison officials protested disruptions caused by this practice, other arrangements, such as house arrest, were made.

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

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 to date. With few major employers, there were few opportunities for workers to unionize, and the country has 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. However, there were no legal impediments to either. 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 law 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; however, they did not uncover any specific cases during the year.

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, and other small-scale domestic 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 US dollar is 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 were often several wage earners to support each family. The Ministry of Resources and Development adequately enforced the minimum wage regulations. 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 International Labor Organization 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.

Search Refworld