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Landowners in Kwajalein Island, the U.S. government's most important missile-testing site in the Marshall Islands, refused in 2004 to accept a proposed agreement to extend the American presence through 2066, demanding payment of $19.1 million a year instead of the $15 million being offered. However, their view had not significantly swayed the governments of either the Marshall Islands or the U.S. in their negotiations.
The atolls and islands that constitute the present-day Republic of the Marshall Islands were under Spanish and German rule before being occupied by Japan during World War II. They were placed under U.S. trusteeship in 1947, and in 1986, the island republic, 4,200 miles southwest of California, gained full independence. The country continues to maintain close relations with the United States through the Compact of Free Association, an agreement that provides the Marshall Islands with U.S. defense protection and development assistance in exchange for rights to establish U.S. missile bases. (The Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau have similar agreements with the United States.) The compact provides nearly half of the country's national budget.
Kessai Note was chosen president 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.
In the November 2003 parliamentary elections - the seventh national election since independence - the UDP won a majority in the 33-seat House of Representatives (Nitijela). Note was elected to a second term in the subsequent presidential elections held in the same month.
Since 1964, Kwajalein has been the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles and antimissile defense. Between 1946 and 1958, 67 nuclear weapons tests were conducted in the Marshall Islands. Activities at the testing range have increased since 2000. Negotiations in 2002 and 2003 resulted in an amended compact that was entered into force on May 1, 2004. The amended compact provides for a transfer of $57 million from the United States to the Marshall Islands over the next 10 years and another $62 million over the following 10 years. Marshallese will also have access to U.S. education and medical programs and services throughout these next two decades. Rent payments to landowners in Kwajalein have been raised to $15 million, plus $5.1 million in annual development funding. Marshallese will also retain visa-free entry to the United States to live, work, and study, but lose $800,000 in annual college scholarships.
In exchange for increased funds, the Marshallese government has agreed to crack down on illegal passport sales. The illegal sale of passports has been a problem since the mid-1990s, when about 2,000 people, mainly from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, were found to have purchased fake documents. In addition, a Joint Economic Management and Financial Accountability Committee (JEMFAC), comprised of representatives of both governments, has been set up to ensure that the funds are spent effectively. The United States is interested in negotiating a new compact to extend U.S. use of the Kwajalein missile-testing range through 2066, in exchange for $2.3 billion and the establishment of an $800 million trust fund to replace direct U.S. assistance after the expiration of the recently amended compact.
Citizens of the Marshall Islands can change their government democratically. The president is the head of state and chief executive, and is chosen by the House of Representatives (Nitijela) from among its members. The members of the 33-seat Nitijela are directly elected to four-year terms. The upper house - the Council of Chiefs (Iroji) - consists of 12 traditional leaders who advise on customary law. Political parties are legal, but there are none. The United Democratic Party of President Kessai Note is more of a loose caucus than a formal party. Note, the only commoner to have held the office of president, was first elected to the post in January 2000.
After the country was placed on the European Union's watch list, the government took action against tax evasion and money laundering. Corruption is a considerable problem. Public dissatisfaction with political corruption and abuses by government officials has led to calls for change. However, international watch groups and domestic critics report little progress on reform and improved transparency.
Freedom of speech is respected. A privately owned newspaper publishes articles in English and Marshallese. Two radio stations, one government-owned and one church-owned, carry news broadcasts from overseas. The government station carries public service announcements and live broadcasts of legislative sessions, and cable television offers foreign news and entertainment programs and occasional videotaped local events. The government does not restrict Internet access, but penetration rates are low owing to cost and technical access issues outside the capital.
Freedom of religion and academic freedom are respected in practice. College education is rare among Marshall Islanders. Of its 55,000 people, fewer than 130 currently attend four-year colleges in the country and elsewhere in the Pacific region and the United States.
Non-government organizations operate freely in the country, many of which are involved in women's rights and children's welfare. NGOs sponsored by or affiliated with Christian church organizations help provide social services. The government broadly interprets constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association to cover trade unions. There is no formal right to strike or engage in collective bargaining, but there are no formal prohibitions against such activities.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, although past governments have tried to influence the judiciary. Three former chief justices either resigned or were fired by the government in the late 1990s. Chief Justice Charles Henry, a U.S. citizen, was tried in August 2003 on 29 charges of alleged misuse of government funds, cheating and criminal libel. Nearly all judges, prosecutors, and public defenders are foreigners because few Marshallese have law degrees. The government raised judges' salaries in recent years to better attract and retain more qualified judges.
There were no reports of police abuse of suspects or prisoners. Detention centers and prisons provide a basic level of comfort. Domestic and foreign human rights groups have not been barred from visiting these facilities or reporting their observations.
Social and economic discrimination against women is widespread despite this being a matrilineal society, where traditional rank and property are passed through female bloodlines. Domestic violence against women is often alcohol-related. The government has taken a stronger stand in prosecuting rapes: five cases went to court in 2003 compared with just one in 2002.