U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2006 - Marshall Islands

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 6, 2007

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a constitutional republic with a population of approximately 56,000. In November 2003 voters elected the parliament (Nitijela) in generally free and fair multiparty elections. The president is elected by majority Nitijela vote. In January 2004 the Nitijela elected President Kessai Note of the United Democratic Party (UDP) 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, prison conditions, government corruption, violence against women, child abuse, and lack of worker protections were areas of concern.


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. All 47 male prisoners were held in a single facility attached to police headquarters, consisting of three interconnected rooms and four 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 to ensure regular access to outside activity. Security was poor.

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 generally were held under house arrest. During the year the one female juvenile prisoner was held in a separate office in the jail vacated to accommodate her.

During the year the government permitted a prison visit by independent journalists, who subsequently published an article on prison conditions in the Marshall Islands Journal newspaper. There were no other requests for 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.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

There are local police forces, and there is a national police force under the Ministry of Justice. In most situations police officers did not carry firearms and generally used the minimum force necessary to detain a suspect. Although there were some instances of police corruption, it was not widespread. There is a director of investigations in the Attorney General's Office to handle allegations of police abuse and corruption.

Arrest and 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; however, the courts have interpreted this provision to exempt situations such as a breach of the peace or an ongoing felony. 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 May a public defender charged that on several occasions police and immigration officers detained nationals of the People's Republic of China (PRC) for immigration violations without first obtaining an arrest warrant and in some cases held the individuals in jail two to three days without filing charges. The Attorney General's Office responded that the officers had acted within the law since a violation of the Immigration Act is deemed to be an ongoing felony.

Families had access to detainees, and detainees have the right to lawyers of their choice. There was a functioning system of bail, and the government 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 judicial independence 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. 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 constitution 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 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 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.

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.

Individuals generally could criticize the government privately or publicly without reprisal. In July, however, one incident that questioned the right to freedom of speech occurred when a special interim committee of the Nitijela summoned the president of the Chamber of Commerce to answer inquiries regarding a letter the chamber sent to the speaker of the Nitijela and the Marshall Islands Journal condemning travel of certain elected officials to the PRC. The committee criticized both the letter and similar comments made by the chamber president in an interview with Radio New Zealand. Although the Nitijela took no action against the chamber, the committee's public scolding of chamber leaders led some members of the public to express concern about censorship.

During the year the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Women United Together in the Marshall Islands (WUTMI) broadcast its outreach programs on the government-owned radio station under the auspices of a Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) program grant. Previously the government had denied permission to WUTMI for weekly broadcasts, and after the PREL program was completed in September, the government again denied WUTMI access to weekly public broadcasting; however, WUTMI's General Assembly meetings were broadcast on the government-owned station.

Internet Freedom

There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chatrooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by electronic mail.

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 individuals of Jewish background in the country.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2006 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 law does not prohibit forced exile, but 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 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), which serves a largely consultative function dealing with custom and traditional practices. Citizens 18 years of age and older elect the 33-member Nitijela and mayors by secret ballot every four years. Elections for the Nitijela were held in November 2003; President Kessai Note's UDP won a majority of the seats, and the Nitijela reelected him in January 2004.

There were no widespread allegations of electoral fraud, but 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 did not overturn any electoral commission decisions.

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 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 one woman in the Nitijela and four women in the 12-seat House of Iroij. There were no female judges, but the chief public defender was a woman. There were a number of women in prominent appointive government positions, including the secretary of education, secretary of health, secretary of foreign affairs, director of the Social Security Administration, and banking commissioner.

There were very few members of minority groups who were citizens, and there were no members of minorities in the legislature.

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. In 2005 the Ministry of Finance was reorganized in an effort to increase accountability. The Attorney General's Office is responsible for investigating cases of alleged corruption, but only a few cases have been prosecuted. No high-level elected official has ever been indicted for corruption. In March the chief immigration officer was dismissed for alleged improper professional conduct.

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 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 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 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.


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, with penalties of up to 25 years' imprisonment for first-degree sexual assault, 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.

During the year there were three reported incidents of sexual assault against foreign women. In one case a juvenile was charged with three counts of sexual assault, one count of burglary, and one count of disturbing the peace. He was found not guilty of sexual assault but was sentenced to 18 months in prison on the other two charges. In the second case a juvenile pled guilty to first-degree sexual assault and was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment, with five years suspended. The third case, which involved alleged sexual fondling of a teacher on an outer atoll, was not prosecuted due to lack of evidence.

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, 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. The government prosecuted and expelled several individuals who had overstayed their visas, could show no income or other evidence of support, and were alleged to be involved in prostitution.

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, although control of property often was delegated to male family members on behalf of female landowners. Many educated women held prominent positions, particularly in government (see section 3); however, while female workers were very prevalent in the private sector, many were in low-paying jobs with little prospect for advancement. 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.


The government showed a 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 increasing population.

Education was compulsory and universal, and the national government did not charge school fees. However, individual public schools were permitted to charge modest registration fees to help support their programs, and some schools did so. A 2004 law expanded compulsory education from six- to 14-year-olds to four- to 18-year-olds, but the government lacked the resources to implement the expanded mandate.

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 annual registration fee (which varied by school but averaged approximately $10) or incidental expenses. (The US dollar is the national currency.) The lack of school lunch programs in most public schools was cited as another factor that contributed to absenteeism and poor performance. Despite the 2004 law extending compulsory education through age 18, there were not enough high school facilities 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.

The law sets 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, but 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. Nonetheless, there were few reports and few prosecutions. Child abuse and neglect were considered to be on the increase. In July the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal by a foreigner of his 2004 conviction for attempted rape and attempted incest against his minor daughter, a citizen of the country, on the ground that his appeal failed to comply with prescribed rules of procedure. A deportation proceeding against him was pending at year's end.

Trafficking in Persons

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

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities, and there are no restrictions on the right of persons with disabilities to vote or participate in civic affairs. 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 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 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.

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. 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. In August the Nitijela passed immigration and labor bills designed to deter illegal entry into the country and illegal employment activities of third country nationals. During the year five PRC national women charged that after they began working in a Majuro restaurant and bar in 2005, the owner, PRC national Xu Xin, withheld the pay they were promised and forced them to engage in acts of prostitution, threatening to have them arrested if they refused to comply. They also alleged that they paid Xu $1,500 each to obtain extended entry and work permits, but never received the permits. In August Xu was charged with five counts of prostitution and one count of public nuisance. She also was charged with illegal employment of aliens in a separate case. However, she left the country before the cases came to trial. The five victims voluntarily left the country by year's end.

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, retailing, and other small-scale enterprises.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law establishes a minimum wage of two dollars 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. In the subsistence economy, however, 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, and 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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