Freedom in the World 2002 - Marshall Islands

Polity: Parliamentary democracy and traditional chiefs
Population: 100,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: 65
Religious Groups: N/A
Ethnic Groups: Micronesian
Capital: Majuro

Political Rights Score: 1
Civil Liberties Score: 1
Status: Free


In July, the United States conducted a missile intercept test at the Kwajalein testing range. Shortly before the test, a Greenpeace activist was arrested by Marshall Islands police under pressure from the United States and threatened with deportation. At the same time, American officials arrived for the opening round of negotiations to discuss future economic funding under the Compact of Free Association between the Marshall Islands and the United States.

The Marshall Islands, consisting of the Ralik and Ratak chains of coral atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, were purchased by Germany from Spain in 1899. Japan seized the islands in 1914, governing them under a League of Nations mandate until the U.S. Navy occupied them in 1945. In 1947, they became part of the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands under United Nations trusteeship. The Marshall Islands district drafted a constitution. On May 1, 1979, it came into effect, and the parliament chose Amata Kabua as the country's first president. He was subsequently reelected to four successive four-year terms, the last beginning in January 1996.

In 1983, the Marshall Islands signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States, which came into force in 1986. Under the Compact, the country is fully sovereign but the United States has control over defense and foreign affairs and is allowed to conduct missile testing at a base on Kwajalein Atoll. The Compact also includes an annual economic assistance package of $65 million, which supports as much as 55 percent of the national budget.

Compact money rapidly expanded the service sector, but many government institutions failed, spending surpassed receipts, and there was little economic development. All this left the country saddled with a large foreign debt. The government introduced an austerity program in 1995 that was designed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to reduce the budget and the size of the civil service. In June, the ADB approved a $12 million package of loans intended to strengthen the financial and economic management of the public sector and avert a budgetary crisis.

Negotiations for a new economic assistance package under the Compact began in Hawaii in 1999, but were postponed until July this year while President Kessai Note's administration developed long-term plans to submit to the United States. The current agreement expires in 2003. The Marshall Islands also petitioned the U.S. Congress to provide $27 million to meet the shortfall in the $45 million Compact Fund to settle 6,460 claims for injuries caused by nuclear testing in the region between 1946 and 1958. Already 40 percent of the claimants have died without receiving compensation, and new reports reveal that the fallout from nuclear weapons tests was at least 20 times greater than the U.S. estimate. In March, former inhabitants of Bikini Island were awarded $553 million in compensation for nuclear test cleanup costs and loss of land by the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal.

Amata Kabua's death in December 1996 left the country bereft of leadership. The president owed his political longevity to personal loyalties within parliament and a limited pool of viable alternative candidates. On January 14, 1997, parliament elected Imata Kabua, a long-time senator and a cousin of the late president, to finish the president's term although the constitution mandates that the speaker of the senate should serve as acting president. In 1998, Imata Kabua won a narrow victory in a no-confidence motion, the first in the country's history. The opposition charged that Kabua misused government funds and that his administration lacked accountability and transparency. The public also strongly criticized his administration's proposal to rent remote, uninhabited islands to foreign countries as nuclear waste dumps. In December 1999, voters ousted Kabua's government in a public poll and gave the opposition United Democratic Party a majority in the parliament. Kessai Note was elected president by the parliament and took office in January 2000. He survived a no-confidence motion filed by Kabua and six other opposition senators in January 2001.

The Marshall Islands, along with several other Pacific Island countries, was implicated in allegations of money-laundering activities and has been blacklisted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The government contested this claim but introduced measures to monitor the country's offshore banking activities. In November, measures to combat antiterrorist financing were included in a new series of anti-money-laundering laws.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of the Marshall Islands can change their government democratically. The 1979 constitution provides for a bicameral parliament: the 33-seat house of representatives (Nitijela) is directly elected for a four-year term, and this lower house chooses a president, who holds executive powers as head of state and head of the government, from among its members. The Council of Chiefs, or upper Iroji, has 12 traditional leaders who offer advice on customary laws. No legal restrictions exist against the formation of political parties.

The judiciary is generally independent, and the rule of law is well established. In recent years, the parliament amended the Judiciary Act and passed a new legislative act to strengthen the judiciary in order to prevent government intervention. The government respects the right to a fair trial. Both the national and local police honor legal civil rights protections in performing their duties.

The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press, but journalists occasionally practice self-censorship on sensitive political issues. A privately owned weekly newspaper publishes in both English and the Marshallese language. The government's Marshall Islands Gazette, a monthly, contains official news and avoids political coverage. There are two radio stations; one is state-owned, and both offer pluralistic views. A cable television company shows U.S. programs and occasionally covers local events. There are no restrictions on religious observance in this predominantly Christian country.

Freedom of assembly is respected in practice. The government broadly interprets constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, but no trade unions have been formed. There is no formal right to strike or engage in collective bargaining, but no legal constraint exists in practice.

Freedom of internal movement is unrestricted, except on Kwajalein Atoll, the site of a major U.S. military installation. This year, the Marshallese government joined with the United States to enforce a 12-mile exclusion zone for boats and planes around the test site. Responding to pressure from the United States, police also detained an Australian Greenpeace activist who had been camping on a nearby island for several months prior to the test.

Although inheritance of property and traditional rank are matrilineal, and women hold a social status equal to men in most matters, most women working in the private sector hold low-wage jobs, and women are underrepresented in politics and government. Domestic violence has increased, and traditional culture dissuades many victims of domestic violence from reporting the crime or prosecuting spouses in the court system.

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