US Department of State
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
The Marshall Islands Human Rights Practices 1998
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 a 33-member Parliament (Nitijela), 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 the judiciary.
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 the judiciary.
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
- 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. There
were three reported cases of arbitrary detention--one lasting
up to 7 days--in which persons were denied their rights to be
charged or released within the specified time, or to be informed
of the charges against them.
f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
- The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However,
the Government attempts to influence judicial matters through
legislative or administrative means. A High Court seat vacated
in July remains unfilled. The President and his cabinet ministers
publicly criticized the foreign national High Court Chief Justice
harshly. The harsh critical statement was broadcast on the government
radio station following the Judge's declaration concerning a constitutional
interpretation with which the Government disagreed.
- 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.
- The Constitution provides for freedom from such practices, government
authorities respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject
to effective legal sanction.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Government respects academic freedom.
- 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 newspaper with articles and
opinions in both English and the Marshallese language.
- There are two radio stations, one government owned. The President
and cabinet members control the programming of the government
station and generally allow nonadministration viewpoints to be
aired. There is a cable television company that broadcasts a variety
of foreign news and entertainment programs and occasional videotaped
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
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,
- 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 4 years with universal suffrage for citizens
18 years of age and older. The President is selected by the
Nitijela from among its 33 members. The President then selects
nine cabinet ministers from among his closest supporters in the
Nitijela. Executive power is centralized in the president and
his cabinet. This elite group dominates the legislature as well.
In September the President and his Cabinet walked out of the legislative
session when the Speaker of the Nitijela ruled that there would
be a secret ballot on a motion of no confidence. The boycott continued
at year's end. The action precipitated a virtual shutdown of the
legislature and a constitutional crisis that is under appeal to
the Supreme Court. There are no restrictions on the formation
of political parties, but no formal parties exist. Political activity
by foreigners is prohibited.
There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government
and politics. One woman holds a deputy minister position, and
a woman is mayor of Majuro. Society is matrilineal, and those
men and women who exercise traditional leadership and land ownership
powers derive their rights either from their own positions in
the family, or from relationships deriving from their mother's
and sister's lineage. However, urbanization and the movement of
the population away from the lands that they control, is leading
to a decline in the traditional authority exercised by women.
Women's cultural responsibilities and traditionally passive roles
are not seen to be managerial or executive in nature, and women
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 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 of 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 among the general
population. 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 alcohol
and illegal gambling.
- 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.
Section 6 Worker Rights
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 Employment
- 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
typically are not employed in the wage economy, but some assist
their families in 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
- 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 national 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, 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. There is no legislation specifically giving
workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger
their health or safety without jeopardy to their continued employment,
and there is no legislation protecting workers who file complaints
about such conditions.
[end of document]
Bibliographic citation for this document
US Department of State (1999) Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The Marshall Islands Human Rights Practices. 1998. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,
February 26, 1999.
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