US Department of State
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
The Marshall Islands Human Rights Practices 1997
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. The Government attempts to influence judicial
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,
import and income taxes, and fishing licensing fees generate limited
The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens,
and the law and judiciary provide effective means of dealing with
individual instances of abuse. However, government influence
leads to occasional media self-censorship, and also affects judicial
matters. There were instances of denial of due process for detainees.
Violence against women and child abuse are problems.
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 or Punishment
- 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 generally observes this prohibition. One case
of arbitrary detention resulted in denying a prisoner for 8 months
his right to hear charges against him and his right to a prompt
judicial determination of the legality of the detention. In 10
other reported cases, each lasting up to 1 month, persons were
denied their rights to be charged or released within a period
of time, or to be informed of the charges.
f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home,
- The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However,
the Government attempts to influence judicial matters. The legislature,
for example amended the Judiciary Act to resolve any inconsistency
between the rule of the court and an act of the legislature in
favor of acts of the legislature. It also made significant changes
to the country's civil rules and process apparently without counsel
or consideration of the effects on the court system or the populace.
- The Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and the
Government generally respects this right.
- 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.
- 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 is a privately owned weekly with articles and opinions
in both English and the Marshallese language.
- The Government publishes a monthly gazette containing official
news and notices only.
- There are four radio stations, one government owned and three
privately owned. There is a cable television company that normally
shows U.S. programming but occasionally covers local events.
- 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 elections. The Nitijela (Parliament) and mayors are
elected by secret ballot every four years with universal suffrage
for citizens 18 years of age and older. The President is selected
by the Nitijela from among its 33 members. Ten Cabinet Ministers
are then selected by the President from among his closes supporters
in the Nitijela. Executive power is centralized in the president
and his cabinet. This elite group dominates the legislature as
well. There are no restrictions on the formation of political
parties, but no formal parties exist. Political activity by foreigners
There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government
and politics. One woman holds a deputy minister position, and
a woman is acting mayor of Majuro. 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. Urbanization, however, and the movement
away from the lands they control, is leading to a decline in the
traditional authority previously exercised by women. Women's
cultural responsibilities and traditionally passive 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 generally respects these provisions.
- The Government identifies spousal abuse as increasingly common.
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 provides counseling for reported spouse and child
abuse cases, but advises that many cases go unreported. Assault
is a criminal offense, but women involved in domestic violence
are reluctant to prosecute spouses in the court system. Women's
groups publicize women's issues and attempt to create a greater
awareness of the rights of women. Violence against women outside
the family occurs, and 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. However, while women workers
are very prevalent in the private sector, many of them are in
low paying jobs with little hope of advancement.
People With Disabilities
- The Government is committed 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
- It is estimated that up to 20 percent of elementary school age
children are not enrolled in school. The Government's enrollment
report indicates that only two-thirds of those completing eighth
grade attend high school. Of that number, 50 percent eventually
- Child abuse and neglect are criminal offenses. Although the Government
has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, awareness
of the Convention and its provisions remain low at the community
level. 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 are few reports and few prosecutions. Child abuse
and neglect are considered to be on the increase. Apparently
contributing to the problem are the influences on family life
and traditional values arising from increased urbanization, unemployment,
population pressures, two-earner households, and the availability
of gambling and alcohol.
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. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for
- The Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude, and there is
no evidence of its practice. The law does not specifically prohibit
forced and bonded labor by children but such practices are not
known to occur.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
- The law does not specifically prohibit forced and bonded labor
by children, but such practices are not known to occur (see Section
- 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 of
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- 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.
Bibliographic citation for this document
US Department of State (1998) Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The Marshall Islands Human Rights Practices. 1997. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,
January 30, 1998.
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