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 2021

  • In February, the RMI announced that it would move to end its membership in the Pacific Islands Forum. The RMI and four other member states announced their intention to depart after the RMI’s candidate for secretary-general, Gerald Zackios, was not selected for the post. The decision to leave will take effect in 2022.
  • In November, 10 US House of Representatives members urged the administration of President Joe Biden to focus on Compact of Free Association (CFA) renewals with the RMI, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and Palau, citing concerns of Chinese influence in the region. The current agreement with Majuro will expire in 2023.
  • Preliminary census results showing a significant population decline between 2011 and 2021 were released in November. As many as 25,000 Marshallese may have migrated during that period.

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.

The parliament elected David Kabua, son of the first president of the Marshall Islands, Amata Kabua, to the post in January 2020. He succeeded Hilda Heine, the first woman to be head of state of a Pacific Island country, who lost her coalition after the November 2019 elections.

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 Nitijela (parliament) consists of 33 members, with 19 seats directly elected in single-member districts and five multimember districts with between 2 and 5 seats. Members serve four-year terms. Elections are officially nonpartisan, and lawmakers are free to form alliances and change party affiliations after taking office.

The November 2019 elections were affected by low turnout. The opposition made significant parliamentary gains during that contest.

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 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, 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. Hilda Heine was the country’s first woman president. Only two women entered the 33-member Nitijela in 2019—Heine and newly elected Kitlang Kabua.

In 2019, the Supreme Court removed a 2016 law that banned absentee voting. However, that law’s undoing did not take effect by the November 2019 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 persist, despite the RMI’s trade deal with Taiwan and deep ties to the United States.

The RMI has close relations with the United States under the 1986 CFA, which allows the US military to operate in the RMI 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. In November 2021, 10 US House of Representatives members urged the Biden administration to focus on CFA renewals with the RMI, the FSM, and Palau, citing concerns of Chinese influence.

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 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 RMI.

The number of fraud cases prosecuted by the auditor general increased in both 2019 and 2020, a possible sign of added effectiveness due to new funding from the World Bank. In September 2020, Auditor General Junior Patrick reported a total of 13 corruption allegations since that January, including embezzlement, misappropriation of public assets, abuse of office, and tax evasion.

In 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.

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. In August 2021, the World Bank agreed to finance an $30 million internet-access project in the RMI.

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, 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.

Dangerous radiation levels on various atolls of the RMI—with levels similar to those observed after the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident—were caused and hidden by the US military but have been reported on in recent years. 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 Runit Dome on the atoll Enewetak. Further, the US government withheld key information about the contents of Runit Dome and falsely claimed it would be safe for the Marshallese to return before the 1986 CFA was signed. 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 2019, then president Heine called on the US government to pay to repair Runit Dome, which was found to be leaking, further endangering the nearby population. In 2020, the United States declared that Runit Dome was safe, despite RMI-provided evidence to the contrary. The RMI’s Nuclear Commission claimed that the US report contains no new analysis and ignores evidence and information from local communities. In October 2021, members of a US House of Representatives subcommittee criticized the Biden administration, saying that its stance on Runit Dome was affecting CFA renewal negotiations. In November, House of Representatives members Raúl Grijalva and Katie Porter called on the US Energy Department to release more information about the state of Runit Dome.

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 known as voluntary out-migration. As many as 25,000 people left the RMI due to out-migration between 2011 and 2021 according to preliminary census data released in November 2021.

In 2019, a dengue fever outbreak prompted a state-of-emergency declaration and a domestic travel ban throughout the Marshall Islands. The outbreak was severe, and the state of emergency was extended into 2020. That March, restrictions were further tightened to prevent the spread of COVID-19. All travel into the Marshall Islands, including for Marshallese citizens, was banned for much of 2020, as was, at times, all outbound travel. These restrictions were eased as 2021 progressed in order to facilitate repatriation.

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. Land ownership is, however, subject to complex local ownership rules and norms.

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. Eight domestic violence complaints were filed in the first five months of 2021, while 10 were recorded in all of 2020.

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. The RMI remains on the Tier 2 watchlist of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2021 due to the RMI’s limited policing of human trafficking, though the State Department noted the government’s efforts to improve.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    93 100 free