Marshall Islands

PR Political Rights 38 40
CL Civil Liberties 55 60
Last Year's Score & Status
93 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is a stable democracy with regular, competitive elections, an independent judiciary, and a free press. Civil liberties are generally respected. Persistent problems include corruption, gender discrimination, domestic violence, and human trafficking.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • President Hilda Heine regained her seat as a representative in the November elections, despite her coalition losing significant support to the opposition. The vote in the legislature to choose the next president was set for January 2020.
  • Although in October the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a 2016 law that banned absentee ballots, the court decided that absentee voting would not be reinstated in the November elections. The law prevented 30,000 citizens from voting.
  • In November, an LA Times report revealed the extent of dangerous radiation levels on various atolls in the Marshall Islands—similar to the levels at Fukushima and Chernobyl—caused and hidden by the United States military and government.
  • In March, three Marshallese citizens were arrested for their roles in a human trafficking ring that sent pregnant Marshallese to the United States illegally for their children to be adopted. Along with the trafficking charges, the scheme also involved money laundering and fraud.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The president, who is elected by the unicameral legislature from among its members for four-year terms, nominates fellow lawmakers to serve as cabinet ministers, and they are formally appointed by the parliament speaker.

Hilda Heine, the first woman to be head of state of a Pacific Island country, was elected as president in 2015. Despite being reelected as a representative, she may lose the presidency as a result of key members of her coalition failing to regain their seats in parliament. The RMI parliament will select the new president in January 2020.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The parliament, known as the Nitijela, consists of 33 members, with 19 seats directly elected in single-member districts and five multimember districts with between 2 and 5 seats. Elections are officially nonpartisan, and lawmakers are free to form alliances and change party affiliations after taking office.

There were no reports of violence or complaints of fraud or irregularities at the November 2019 election, which experienced a notably low voter turnout. The opposition coalition made significant gains in the parliament. Two incumbents on the main atoll (the reefs of coral that form the Marshall Islands), Majuro, and multiple others across the islands were voted out of office and replaced with several newcomers.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4.004 4.004

The constitutional and legal framework provides for democratic elections, and it is implemented impartially.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4.004 4.004

Parliamentary elections are technically nonpartisan, but politicians can organize in groupings that compete freely and do not encounter obstacles from state or nonstate actors. These groups tend to function as loose coalitions among lawmakers, and representatives switching between them is common.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4.004 4.004

The country has an established record of democratic transfers of power between rival groups. Some governments have been replaced as a result of elections, while others have been toppled by no-confidence votes.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 4.004 4.004

There are no significant undue constraints on the political choices of voters or candidates. Traditional chiefs play an influential but gradually waning role in politics.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4.004 4.004

Naturalized citizens were allowed to run as candidates in the 2015 and subsequent elections, after a court ruling found that a 1980 law requiring parliamentary candidates to have at least one Marshallese parent and traditional land rights was unconstitutional.

Women have full political rights, though entrenched gender roles limit their participation to some extent. Heine is the country’s first woman to be elected president. Only two women entered parliament in 2019—Hilda Heine and newly elected Kitlang Kabua.

In October 2019, the Supreme Court removed a 2016 law that banned absentee voting. However, the undoing of the law did not take effect in the November elections, as the court recognized that there was too little time for the government to implement the changes. An estimated 30,000 Marshallese citizens, around a third of the country’s citizenry, live in the United States and had a growing influence in the 2011 and 2015 parliamentary and mayoral elections, before the law was set in place.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4.004 4.004

There are no undue restrictions on the elected government’s ability to form and implement laws and policies. A body of chieftains from the Ralik and Ratak island chains, the Council of Iroij, has an advisory role under the constitution. Its 12 members can offer joint opinions and request reconsideration of any bill affecting customary law, traditional practices, land tenure, and related matters. Concerns of Chinese influence on the country’s independence persist, despite the RMI’s trade deal with Taiwan and deep ties to the United States.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands has close relations with the United States under a 1986 Compact of Free Association, which allows the US military to operate in the country in exchange for defense guarantees and development assistance. A component of the compact in force through 2023 calls for the United States to provide annual aid, including contributions to a trust fund for the country.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3.003 4.004

Corruption has been a chronic problem, though auditing bodies and the independent courts are somewhat effective in detecting abuses and holding officials accountable. High-ranking public officials, however, are rarely prosecuted for corruption. Corruption is most prevalent in the allocation of foreign aid, government procurement, and transfers. In the 2018 audit of Marshallese embassies, over $2.5 million of funds were allegedly misappropriated by various offices. All instances of potential theft of government assets received neither investigation nor proper accounting, according to an independent auditor.

The number of fraud cases prosecuted by the Marshallese Auditor General increased in 2019, potentially a sign of the system working more effectively as a result of a new funds from the World Bank. The office of the Auditor General had long been underfunded, with more cases to investigate than the available resources could handle.

In March 2019, the European Union (EU) added the Republic of the Marshall Islands to their blacklist of tax havens in the world. The list, set up to crack down on tax avoidance by corporations and wealthy individuals, added the RMI because of alleged facilitation of offshore structures to attract capital without real economic substance. RMI could potentially face sanctions or restrictions from EU countries as a result of its presence on the list.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3.003 4.004

There is no strong legal mechanism for obtaining access to government information, but documents can often be obtained through the courts. Auditors have repeatedly found invalid or poorly documented spending practices at government ministries, agencies, and state-owned enterprises.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 4.004 4.004

The government generally respects the freedoms of speech and the press. A privately owned newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal, publishes articles in English and Marshallese. Broadcast outlets include both government- and church-owned radio stations, and cable television offers a variety of international news and entertainment programs. Internet access is expanding, reaching nearly 40 percent of the population in 2018, but it remains limited due to poor infrastructure and high costs.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4.004 4.004

Religious freedoms are respected in practice. Religious groups are not required to register with the government, but those that register as nonprofits are eligible for tax exemptions.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4.004 4.004

There are no significant restrictions on academic freedom.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4.004 4.004

Citizens are generally free to discuss their political opinions, and there are no reports of improper government surveillance.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4.004 4.004

The government upholds constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly. Protests in recent years have addressed issues including climate change, women’s rights, and the legacy of US nuclear weapons tests in the country.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4.004 4.004

Civil society groups, many of which are sponsored by or affiliated with church organizations and provide social services, are able to operate freely.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3.003 4.004

Constitutional and legal provisions that protect freedom of association also apply to trade unions. However, there are no laws regulating the right to strike, and few employers are large enough to support union activity among their workers.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 4.004 4.004

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the judiciary generally operates without political interference. Judges are appointed by the cabinet on the recommendation of the Judicial Service Commission, and the legislature confirms the appointments. High Court and Supreme Court judges can only be removed by a two-thirds vote in the Nitijela, for clear failure or inability to perform their duties or for serious crimes or abuses.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4.004 4.004

The authorities generally observe legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention. The state provides lawyers for indigent defendants, and due process standards for trials are upheld.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4.004 4.004

Violent street crime and other such threats to physical security are relatively rare, though conditions in the country’s few prison and jail facilities are sometimes overcrowded or otherwise below international standards.

The LA Times uncovered in November the extent of dangerous radiation levels on various atolls in the Marshall Islands—similar to the levels at Fukushima and Chernobyl—caused and hidden by the United States military and government. From the 1940s through the 1950s, the US military displaced Marshallese living on various atolls, detonated 67 nuclear bombs, destroyed entire islands, and dumped 130 tons of irradiated soil from Nevada into the Runit Dome on the atoll Enewetak. Further, the American government withheld key information about the contents of the Dome and claimed it would be safe for the Marshallese to return (which was false), before signing the 1986 Compact of Free Association. An international tribunal created by the RMI and United States in 1988 acknowledged $2.3 billion in claims to be paid by the US government; only $4 million had been paid out by 2010. In November 2019, RMI President Heine called for the US government to pay to repair the Runit Dome, which was found to be leaking in July 2019, further endangering the population living near and on the island.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3.003 4.004

Women generally enjoy equal treatment under the law, but there is no explicit ban on discrimination in employment, and women face disadvantages in the workplace in practice. While same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in 2005, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is not prohibited by law.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4.004 4.004

Freedom of movement is generally respected. Marshallese citizens have the right to live and work in the United States and to travel there without a visa. In recent years, sea level rise due to climate change has become a more prominent impetus for Marshallese citizens to move to the United States, in a trend that has been called voluntary out-migration.

In August 2019, due to an outbreak of dengue fever, the government imposed a domestic travel ban throughout the Marshall Islands, declaring a state of emergency. The outbreak was severe and extended through December, when restrictions were tightened further, and violations were penalized with fines or jailtime.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3.003 4.004

Individuals have the rights to own property and establish private businesses, and these rights are largely observed in practice.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3.003 4.004

Personal social freedoms are mostly upheld. However, the minimum age for marriage is 16 for women and 18 for men; about a quarter of women aged 20–24 were married by age 18. While domestic violence remains widespread, reporting of the problem has increased in recent years possibly due to improved processes for obtaining orders of protection.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3.003 4.004

The government enforces a minimum wage law, though it does not apply to the informal sector. Some local and East Asian women are subjected to forced prostitution in a trade that depends on visiting freight or fishing vessels. According to the US State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, the RMI government has made efforts to combat trafficking, but does not meet minimum standards. Police failed to immediately and expediently investigate a brothel with potential child sex trafficking victims and alleged complicity of senior government officials, after being alerted to the problem by local media. The RMI was demoted to Tier 2 on the US State Department’s watch list because the government’s efforts to prevent trafficking, prosecute traffickers, and provide services for trafficking survivors were inadequate and had decreased in the last year.

In March 2019, three Marshallese people were charged in the Marshall Islands for their role in a human trafficking ring. The three charged had been working with US elected official Paul Petersen to connect families looking to adopt children from pregnant Marshallese mothers, falsifying their travel and visa documents, and housing them in the United States in what was described by multiple investigators and news outlets as a “baby mill.”

On Marshall Islands

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  • Global Freedom Score

    93 100 free