U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2004 - Marshall Islands

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 28, 2005

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a self-governing nation under the Compact of Free Association with the United States. 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, the Nitijela was elected in free and fair elections. The President is elected by majority Nitijela vote and appoints his Cabinet from its membership. In January, the Nitijela elected President Kessai Note to a second 4 year term. The judiciary is independent.

The national police under the Ministry of Justice and local police forces are responsible for internal security. Under the Compact of Free Association, the United States is responsible for the country's external defense. The civilian authorities maintained effective control of the security forces. There were no reports that security forces committed human rights abuses.

The mixed economy is heavily dependent on transfer payments from the United States under the Compact. Such payments constituted approximately 70 percent of the country's estimated $100 million gross national product. According to 2002 data, the population of approximately 56,600 was of Micronesian origin and concentrated primarily on the Majuro and Kwajalein Atolls. Coconut oil, copra, and tuna exports, tourism, import and income taxes, an open ship registry, a tuna loining plant, ship chandlering, and fishing licensing fees generated limited revenues. However, in September, the loining plant, a major employer, closed due to financial problems. Economic growth in 2002, the latest figure available, was approximately 4 percent, but annual labor force growth of approximately 7 percent combined with government austerity measures resulted in a decline in real wages over the past several years. The U.S. dollar is the national currency.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, and the law and the judiciary provide effective means of dealing with individual instances of abuse; however, there were problems in a few areas. Prison conditions did not meet international standards. Violence against women and child abuse continued to be problems.


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

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports of the arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life committed by the Government or its agents.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution forbids such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Prison conditions did not meet international standards. Most prisoners were held in a single large, inadequately lighted dormitory with inadequate nighttime supervision. There was no program to ensure regular access to daily outside activity. Some male juveniles were held together with adults; as juvenile crimes increased in number and seriousness over the past several years, the courts began to try more male juveniles as adults and to order them held with the general prison population. Pretrial detainees were not separated from the general prison population. Female prisoners, including juveniles, were held under house arrest.

The Government permitted prison visits by independent human rights observers.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the Government generally observed these prohibitions.

There is a national police force and local police forces. Police officers do not carry firearms, and police generally used the minimum force necessary to detain a suspect. There were no reports of significant police corruption.

Warrants are required for arrests and are issued by the courts. 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 State provides a lawyer if the defendant is indigent.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution 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 matters of 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. The incumbent succeeded a foreign national judge suspended in 2002 after he was charged with misappropriating government travel funds. At year's end, the case against the suspended judge was in abeyance because of his refusal, on the basis of a medical condition, to return to the country.

During the year, the High Court Chief Justice worked, with foreign assistance, to develop a judicial training program and improvements in trial procedures.

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

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution prohibits such actions, and the Government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.

2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and the Press

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

The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. However, the Government refused 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.

The Government did not restrict Internet access.

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.

For more detailed information, see the 2004 International Religious Freedom Report.

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

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government generally respected them in practice.

The Constitution and law do not prohibit forced exile; however, the Government did not employ this practice.

Although not a signatory, the Government adheres to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and it cooperated with the U.N. 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 Constitution provides citizens with 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. 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. 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 of the cases, except for one that was still pending 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.

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

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.

There is no legislation that provides 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.

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 8 women in the 12-seat House of Iroij. There were no female judges. 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, appointed as ambassador to his country of origin, was a member of the national government.

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.

No international human rights organization expressed interest or concern regarding the country or visited the country.

5. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, place of birth, family status or descent, and the Government 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. The Government's health office provided counseling for 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. Women's groups under the WUTMI umbrella continued to publicize women's issues and promote a greater awareness of women's rights. According to a 2003 WUTMI survey, more than 80 percent of Marshallese 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.

There is no legal age of consent. The law criminalizes only "forced" rape and does not specifically cite sexual assault, domestic violence, or sexual abuse.

In September, a judge convicted a foreigner of assaulting his girlfriend in public, including kicking her as she was lying on the ground and threatening to kill her, and sentenced him to a year in prison. However, citing mitigating factors, the judge suspended the sentence and substituted 2 days in jail, a $100 fine, 200 hours of community service, and 3 years' probation.

In 2003, the Nitijela made prostitution illegal, and in June, a Chinese prostitute was prosecuted successfully under the new law. However, prostitution continued, especially on the Majuro and Kwajalein Atolls. Organized prostitution was run primarily by foreigners and catered mainly 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 and 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. No instances of unequal pay for equal work or of sex-related job discrimination were reported. 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 is free, compulsory, and universal. In August, despite government shortcomings in enforcing the existing compulsory education law, 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. Admission to high school is 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 – 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.

The Government provided subsidized essential medical services for all citizens, including children.

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. During the year, three prosecutions begun in 2003 for sexual assaults against minors resulted in convictions. In June, a man was convicted of rape, kidnapping, and assault and battery in the assault of a 4 year old child, and was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. In September, a 15 year old youth was acquitted of rape, but convicted of kidnapping and assault and battery and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment in the assault of a 5 year old child. In November, a 15 year old youth was convicted of rape, kidnapping, and assault and battery in the assault of a 9 year old child; he received a 10 year prison term.

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 Constitution 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 the organization of trade unions or to collective bargaining. Wages in the cash economy were determined by market factors in accordance with the minimum wage and other laws.

The Constitution 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; however, they were unable to uncover 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

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

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law establishes a minimum wage of $2.00 per hour for both government and private sector employees. In 1999, the government approved a lower minimum wage of $1.50 per hour for employees at the country's tuna loining plant to encourage investment in the plant. That minimum wage remained in effect for plant employees during the year. 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.


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