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.
- In January, David Kabua, son of the first president of the Marshall Islands, Amata Kabua, was elected as president by Parliament. Former president Hilda Heine regained her seat as a representative in the November elections, but her coalition lost significant support and she was unable to retain her position as prime minister.
- In March, travel restrictions were implemented to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic: all travel into the Marshall Islands, including for Marshallese citizens, was banned for much of the year, as was, at times, all outbound travel. These restrictions were an extension of the state-of-emergency declaration already in place because of an outbreak of Dengue Fever that had begun in 2019. In October, two US Army Garrison workers tested positive for the coronavirus—the only two individuals who contracted COVID-19 throughout the year—and were required to quarantine at the army base.
|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.
The RMI parliament elected David Kabua, son of the first president of the Marshall Islands, Amata Kabua, as the new president in January 2020. He replaced Hilda Heine, the first woman to be head of state of a Pacific Island country, who lost her coalition after the general elections in November.
|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. Fewer than 40 percent of registered voters cast their ballots. 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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, 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.
|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. In October 2020, a senior RMI official denounced China’s attempts at coercion in the region.
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.
|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. In August 2020, the United Nations and the government of New Zealand launched a regional anticorruption project, with over $16 million in funds that would operate in 13 Pacific Island countries, including the Marshall Islands.
The number of fraud cases prosecuted by the Marshallese Auditor General increased in both 2019 and 2020, potentially a sign of the system working more effectively as a result of a new funds from the World Bank. In September 2020, Auditor General Junior Patrick reported a total of 13 corruption allegations since January, including embezzlement, misappropriation of public assets, abuse of office, and tax evasion, among other malpractice. A total of 46 cases of suspected illegal conduct in government have been reported since a significant audit was conducted in 2018. During the 2020 reporting period that ended in August, there were eight active investigations.
In March 2020, a three-year review of the government’s passport program found numerous internal control and compliance problems. Over 500 passports had been issued to non-Indigenous Marshallese who did not have evidence of legal citizenship. In several instances, passport applications were approved without the required documentation at the instruction of high-ranking officials.
In March 2019, the European Union (EU) added the Republic of the Marshall Islands to their list 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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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, operate freely.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
In July 2020, the United States government declared that the Runit Dome was safe, despite evidence provided by RMI government reports to the contrary. The RMI’s Nuclear Commission claims that the US report contains no new analysis and ignores evidence and information from local communities.
|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.
|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 the state of emergency was extended into 2020. In March 2020, restrictions were further tightened to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic: all travel into the Marshall Islands, including for Marshallese citizens, was banned for much of the year, as was, at times, all outbound travel. In October 2020, two US Army Garrison workers tested positive for the coronavirus—the only two individuals who contracted COVID-19 throughout the year—and were required to quarantine at the army base.
|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.
|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.
|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 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, the RMI government did not increase its efforts to combat trafficking and did not report providing assistance to any potential or confirmed victims during the reporting period. In February 2020, the government charged a Chinese national for sex trafficking, though the case was ongoing at the end of the 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, 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.”
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