Freedom in the World 2004 - Marshall Islands
|Publication Date||18 December 2003|
|Cite as||Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Marshall Islands, 18 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c54a8c.html [accessed 10 December 2013]|
Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Life Expectancy: 68
Religious Groups: Christian (mostly Protestant)
Ethnic Groups: Micronesian
The major event in the Marshall Islands in 2003 was the renewal of the Compact of Free Association agreement with the United States to replace the one that expired on September 30. The compact provides nearly half of the Marshall Islands' national budget in exchange for allowing the United States to set up military bases in its territory. In November parliamentary and presidential elections, President Kessai Note's United Democratic Party won a majority of seats in the legislature and Note secured a second term in office.
Following decades of Spanish and German colonial rule, the United States wrested the Marshall Islands from the occupying Japanese during World War II. Beginning in 1997, the Marshall Islands was under U.S. trusteeship administration for nearly four decades. In 1986, the country gained full independence, but ties with the United States remained close. A bilateral Compact of Free Association provides the Marshall Islands with U.S. defense protection and assistance in exchange for access for hosting United States missile bases; the Federal States of Micronesia and Palau have similar agreements with the United States.
Renewal negotiations regarding the compact began four years ago. A key issue was rent for the missile testing range on Kwajalein Atoll, which has been the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range missiles and anti-missile defense since 1964; activities at the testing range have increased since 2000.
In November 2003, the U.S. Senate approved the new $3.1 billion compact, which extends use of the Kwajalein missile-testing range through 2066 for $2.3 billion and establishes an $800 million trust fund that will replace direct U.S. aid in 20 years. Rent payments to landowners for the Kwajalein site were increased to $15 million, plus $5.1 million in annual development funding. By contrast, the old compact guaranteed annual payments of $11.3 million in rent and $1.9 million in aid. Marshall Islanders will continue to have visa-free entry to the United States to live, work, and study, but will lose $800,000 in annual college scholarships.
However, Marshallese landowners want $19.1 million in rent per year. Their rejection of land-use agreements with their own government could block ratification of the new compact. Survivors of U.S. nuclear tests at the Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the 1950s also objected to the absence of any reference to America's continuing obligation to provide them with health care and compensation in the new compact. In exchange for increased funds, the Marshallese government promises to crack down on illegal passport sales. The government expanded the number of inspectors to 10 persons, and a new regulation empowers the police to apprehend and deport visitors who overstay their visa. Persons from China are a particularly serious problem. Illegal passport sales have been a problem since the mid-1990s, when about 2,000 people, mostly from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, were found to have purchased fake documents.
President Kessai Note's United Democratic Party won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections in November. In presidential elections held the same month, Note was reelected by members of parliament to a second term.
In August, an outbreak of measles that was linked to persons traveling from Guam affected some 400 people. The government banned inter-island travel and imposed mass immunization to stop the spread of the disease.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Citizens of the Marshall Islands can change their government democratically. The president is the head of state and chief executive and is chosen by the House of Representatives, or Nitijela, from among its members. The 33-seat House is directly elected for four-year terms. The upper house, the Council of Chiefs, or Iroji, consists of 12 traditional leaders who provide advice on customary law. Political parties are legal, but there are none. The United Democratic Party of President Kessai Note is more of a loose caucus than a formal party. Note was elected to the post in January 2000 and is the first commoner to hold the office.
Freedom of speech is respected. A privately owned newspaper publishes articles in English and Marshallese. Two radio stations, one government owned and one church owned, carry news broadcasts from overseas. The government station carries public service announcements and live broadcasts of legislative sessions. A cable television station offers foreign news and entertainment programs and occasional videotaped local events. The government does not restrict Internet access. Religious and academic freedoms are respected in practice.
The government broadly interprets constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association to cover trade unions. There is no formal right to strike or engage in collective bargaining, but in practice there are no restraints on such activity.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but past governments have attempted to influence the judiciary. Three former chief justices either resigned or were fired by the Kabua administration in the late 1990s. Chief Justice Charles Henry, a U.S. citizen, was tried in August on 29 charges of alleged cheating, misuse of government funds, and criminal libel. In October, the government moved to remove Henry, who had refused to return for his hearing. Nearly all judges, prosecutors, and public defenders are foreigners because few Marshallese have law degrees. To improve the judiciary, President Note raised judges' salaries to attract and retain more qualified foreign judges. The government has cracked down on tax evasion and money laundering after being placed on an international watch list.
Social and economic discrimination against women is widespread even in this matrilineal society, where traditional rank and inheritance of property are through female bloodlines. Growing urbanization and movement from traditional lands have eroded some traditional authority exercised by women. Spousal abuse is not uncommon and is often alcohol related.