US Department of State
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
The Marshall Islands Human Rights Practices 1996
The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a self-governing nation
under the Compact of Free Association with the United States,
is composed of 34 atolls in the central Pacific, with a total
land area of about 70 square miles. The approximately 56,000
inhabitants are of Micronesian origin and concentrated primarily
on Majuro and Kwajalein atolls.
The Constitution provides for free and fair elections, executive
and legislative branches, and an independent judiciary. The legislature
consists of the Nitijela, a 33-member Parliament, and a Council
of Chiefs (Iroij), which serves a largely consultative function
dealing with custom and traditional practice. The President is
elected by majority Nitijela vote and he appoints his Cabinet
from its membership.
Under the Compact of Free Association, the United States is responsible
for defense and national security, and the Marshall Islands has
no external security force of its own. The national and local
police forces have responsibility for internal security. These
agencies honor constitutional and legal civil rights protections
in executing their responsibilities.
The economy depends mainly on transfer payments from the United
States. Coconut oil and copra exports, a small amount of tourism,
and the fishing industry generate limited revenues.
The Government fully respects the human rights of its citizens,
but its influence leads to occasional instances of media self-censorship
in sensitive political or cultural areas.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
- There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment
- There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
- The Constitution expressly forbids such practices, and there were
no reports that officials employed them. Prison conditions, while
Spartan, meet minimal international standards. The Government permits visits by human rights monitors.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
- The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile,
and the Government observes this prohibition.
f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home,
- The Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and the
Government generally respects this right.
- The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However,
the Government has injected itself into judicial matters. The
President assumed and retained the Ministry of Justice portfolio
following his January reelection until his death on December 20.
The Acting President has now assumed the Justice portfolio.
Government interest in an allegedly improper probate procedure
involving the relative of an influential local leader led to the
resignations of the Chief Justices of both the Supreme Court and
the High Court. In another action, legislation, followed by direct
instructions from the Cabinet, caused the Attorney General to
remove from the Social Security Administration a private counsel
who had upset influential individuals by his efforts to collect
outstanding debts from them. In a further action, the legislature
passed a bill denying the application of certain foreign court
money judgment decisions in the Marshall Islands.
- There were no reports of political prisoners.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
- The Constitution provides for freedom from such practices, government
authorities respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject
to effective legal sanction.
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press,
and the Government generally honors these rights in practice.
However, government influence leads to occasional self-censorship
by the media in areas of political or cultural sensitivity. There
are four operating radio stations, one government owned and three
privately owned, including one owned by a prominent member of
the opposition. There is a cable television company which normally
shows U.S. programming but occasionally covers local events.
The cable company is owned and operated by members of the political
- A U.S. citizen and longtime resident operates the country's sole
privately owned newspaper. The editor and two reporters are U.S.
citizens as well.
- The Government publishes a monthly gazette containing official
news and notices only.
- The Government respects academic freedom.
c. Freedom of Religion
- The Constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly and
association, and this is observed in practice.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel,
Emigration, and Repatriation
- The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government
respects this right in practice.
Section 3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of
Citizens to Change Their Government
- The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government
respects them in practice.
- There are no recent reports of refugees. The Government has not
formulated a policy regarding refugees, asylees, or first asylum.
The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their
government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right through
periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal
suffrage for citizens 18 years of age and older. The Government
is chosen by secret ballot in free and open elections every 4
years. There are no restrictions on the formation of political
parties, although political activity by foreigners is prohibited.
Until his death in December, the country had the same President
since 1979 due primarily to traditional loyalties and concentrated
political influence. The election of a new President took place
January 14, 1997.
There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government
and politics. Two women hold deputy minister positions. The
mayor of Majuro, the country's capital and principal urban center,
also is a woman. Society is matrilineal, and those men and women
who exercise traditional leadership and land ownership powers
base their rights either on their own positions in the family,
or on relationships deriving from their mother's and sister's
lineage. Although women have an increasing role in government,
responsibilities and roles are not seen to be managerial or executive
in nature, and they remain underrepresented in Parliament and
other government positions.
Section 4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International
and Nongovernmental Investigations of Alleged Violations of Human
While there are no official restrictions, no local nongovernmental
human rights organizations have been formed. No international
human rights organization has expressed interest or concern or
visited the country.
Section 5. Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion,
Disability, Language, or Social Status
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 respects these provisions.
- There are allegations of violence against women, mainly related
to domestic abuse. Wife beating is not condoned in society, and
most assaults occur while the assailant is under the influence
of alcohol. The Government's health office advises that few such
cases are reported to the authorities, but many more are believed
to go unreported. Assault is a criminal offense, but women involved
in domestic violence are reluctant to prosecute spouses in the
court system, and disputes are usually resolved through traditional
methods involving apology and reparation to the members of the
aggrieved party's family. Women's groups have been formed to
publicize women's issues and to create a greater awareness of
the rights of women. Violence against women outside the family
is not considered a growing problem, although women in the urban
centers would assume a risk by going out alone after dark.
- Inheritance of property and of traditional rank is matrilineal,
with women occupying positions of importance within the traditional
system. No instances of unequal pay for equal work or sex-related
job discrimination were reported.
People with Disabilities
- The Government is committed to children's welfare through its
programs of health care and education, but these have not been
adequate to meet the needs of the country's sharply increasing
population. Marshall Islands is working to incorporate the provisions
of the Convention of the Rights of the Child into law. The Domestic
Relations Amendment of 1993 defines child abuse and neglect and
makes them criminal offenses. Other legislation 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. Child abuse is thought to be neither
common, widespread, nor a growing problem, and there have been
few child abuse prosecutions.
Section 6. Worker Rights
- There is no apparent discrimination against disabled persons in
employment, education, or in the provision of other state services.
There are no building codes, and there is no legislation mandating
access for the disabled.
a. The Right of Association
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
- The Constitution provides for the right of free association in
general, and the Government interprets this right as allowing
the existence of labor unions, although none has been formed to
date. The Constitution does not provide for the right to strike,
and the Government has not addressed this issue.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
- There is no legislation concerning collective bargaining or trade
union organization. However, there are no impediments to the
organization of trade unions or to collective bargaining. Wages
in the cash economy are determined by market factors in accordance
with the minimum wage and other laws.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
- The Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude, and there is
no evidence of its practice.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
- The law does not prohibit the employment of children. Children
are not typically employed in the wage economy, but some assist
their families with fishing, agriculture, and other small-scale
domestic enterprises. The law requires compulsory education for
children from 6 to 14 years of age; but the Government does not
enforce this law due to a lack of classrooms and teachers. There
is no law or regulation setting a minimum age for employment
- There is a government-specified minimum wage established by law,
and it is adequate to maintain a decent standard of living in
this subsistence economy where extended families are expected
to help less fortunate members. The minimum wage for all government
and private sector employees is $2.00 per hour. (The U.S. dollar
is the local currency.) The Ministry of Resources and Development
oversees minimum wage regulations, and its oversight has been
deemed adequate. Foreign employees and Marshallese trainees of
private employers who have invested in or established a business
in the country are exempt from minimum wage requirements. This
exemption does not affect a significant segment of the work force.
- There is no legislation concerning maximum hours of work or occupational
safety and health. Most businesses are closed and people generally
refrain from work on Sunday.
- A government labor office makes recommendations to the Nitijela
on working conditions, i.e., 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. There is no legislation specifically giving workers
the right to remove themselves from situations which endanger
their health or safety without jeopardy to their continued employment,
and there is no legislation protecting workers who file complaints
about such conditions.
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Bibliographic citation for this document
US Department of State (1997) Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The Marshall Islands Human Rights Practices. 1996. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,
January 30, 1997.
Dirk H.R. Spennemann,
Institute of Land, Water and Society,
Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789,
Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
(c) US Department of State