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The Marshall Islands is a small, poor, island-nation consisting of the Ralik and Ratak chains of coral atolls in the central Pacific Ocean. Following decades of Spanish and German colonial rule, the United States wrested the islands from the occupying Japanese during World War II. Beginning in 1947, the United States administered the islands under a UN trusteeship until 1986. That year, the Marshall Islands achieved independence under an accord with the United States that recognizes the country as fully sovereign but leaves Washington in charge of defense and security. The accord, known as the Compact of Free Association, also grants the U.S. government continued use of the Kwajalein Atoll missile test range until 2016.
The current president, Kessai Note, was chosen by parliament in January 2000 after his United Democratic Party (UDP) won general elections in December 1999. The first commoner to hold the post, Note succeeded Imata Kabua, whom opponents accused of misusing government funds and running an administration that lacked openness and accountability. Many also criticized Kabua's proposal to rent remote, uninhabited islands to foreign countries as nuclear waste dumps.
With elections due in 2003, the Note Administration in 2002 negotiated with the United States over three issues that will have a critical impact on the Marshall Islands' future economic development. Following months of bargaining, the two countries agreed on a new Compact of Free Association under which Washington will provide $960 million in aid before the deal expires in 2023.
The Marshall Islands also hired former U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh to help it pursue an additional $2 billion in funding from Washington to address cleanup, health care, and compensation related to U.S. nuclear testing on the islands between 1946 and 1958. The money would replenish a trust fund set up by the U.S. Congress in 1986 that has paid out $270 million to the four atolls most affected by the tests: Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap, and Utrik.
On a third matter, the two countries held talks over a long-term extension of the U.S. lease for the Kwajalein missile test range. Washington currently pays the Marshall Islands around $13 million annually for use of the range, which plays a key role in field tests of the U.S. anti-missile defense system.
Meanwhile, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development named the Marshall Islands in April as one of seven countries or territories worldwide that facilitate tax evasion. Separately, however, the multinational Financial Action Task Force removed the Marshall Islands in October from its global list of states that have not cooperated in the fight against money laundering.
Marshallese can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. The 1979 constitution vests executive powers in a president, who is chosen by the House of Representatives from among its members. The 33-seat House, known locally as the Nitijela, is directly elected for a four-year term. The upper house, the Council of Chiefs, or Iroji, consists of 12 traditional leaders who provide advice on customary law. Political parties are legal, although none exist. President Note's UDP is more a loose caucus than a formal party.
The judiciary is independent but has come under scrutiny in recent years. Chief Justice Charles Henry, a U.S. citizen, faces trial in January 2003 on charges of using government funds for unauthorized travel. Three other chief justices either resigned or were fired by the former Kabua administration in the late 1990s. In a positive move, the Note Administration has increased judges' salaries in an effort to attract and retain qualified foreign judges. Because few Marshallese have law degrees, nearly all judges, prosecutors, and public defenders are foreigners.
The chief justice of the High Court acknowledged in 2001 that police at times illegally detain suspects. These cases generally involve suspects who are either not charged or are released within specified periods, often because of police inefficiency, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002.
The media consists largely of one private weekly newspaper that carries articles in both English and Marshallese and two radio stations: the state broadcaster and a station that offers religious programming along with news from the BBC and other foreign services. In addition, a cable television station carries entertainment, foreign news, and coverage of local events.
Marshallese women historically have enjoyed high social status because inheritance of property and traditional rank is through female bloodlines. However, migration in recent decades to the cities from ancestral lands has undercut the traditional authority of many women, according to the U.S. State Department report. Marshallese women also hold relatively few senior posts in politics and government. Spousal abuse is common, the report said, and often is alcohol related.
Marshallese workers have not formed any trade unions, although they face no legal barriers. The economy depends largely on subsidies from the U.S. under the Compact of Free Association.