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Landowners in Kwajalein Island, the U.S.'s most important missile-testing site in the Marshall Islands, continued in 2005 to demand higher rent under a U.S.-proposed agreement to extend the American military presence to 2066. Residents of the Bikini and Enewetak atolls who were affected by U.S. nuclear weapons tests sought more compensation for health and environmental damage.
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. In 1947, they were placed under U.S. trusteeship. In 1986, the island republic gained full independence.
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. Note was elected to a second term in the subsequent presidential elections held in the same month.
The country maintains close relations with the United States under the Compact of Free Association, which provides nearly half of the country's national budget. Under this agreement, the Marshall Islands grants the United States the right to establish military facilities in exchange for U.S. defense protection and development assistance. An amended Compact, which entered into force on May 1, 2004, promises the 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 retain visa-free entry to the United States to live, work, and study, as well as access to education and medical programs and services in the United States during this 20-year period. A Joint Economic Management and Financial Accountability Committee (JEMFAC) with representatives of both governments ensures that funds are spent effectively. As part of the amended compact, the Marshallese government agreed to crack down on illegal passport sales, which have been a problem since the mid-1990s.
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 amended compact expires in 2024. Landowners in Kwajalein Island-which has been the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles and antimissile defense since 1964-want $19 million in annual rent payment, $4 million more than what the U.S. proposes.
In December 2004, more new claims seeking compensation for nuclear test damage 50 years ago were filed with the nuclear claims tribunal, just before the year-end deadline; between 1946 and 1958, 67 nuclear weapons tests were conducted in the Bikini and Enewetak atolls. Under the current Compact, a tribunal adjudicates claims for health and environmental damage and a $75-million trust fund provides restitution. The tribunal is headed by a U.S. national who had previously spent many years in the Marshall Islands. However, personal injury awards alone exceeded the fund by more than $10 million. In January 2005, the White House announced that no additional funds for compensation will be made available, sparking a public protest in the Marshall Islands and calls to end the use of using Kwajalein as a U.S. missile-test site.
Citizens of the Marshall Islands can change their government democratically. The president is the head of state and chief executive, and is chosen for a four-year term by the House of Representatives (Nitijela) from among its members. The members of the 33-seat Nitijela are directly elected to four-year terms. An advisory body, the Council of Chiefs (Iroji), consists of 12 traditional leaders who advise on customary law. The other major political party is the Kabua Party, which counts among its members more traditional leaders.
Corruption is a considerable problem. Public dissatisfaction with political corruption and official abuses has led to calls for change, but international watch groups and domestic critics reported little progress on reform and improved transparency. The country is on the European Union's watch list money laundering. The Marshall Islands was not surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech is respected. A privately owned newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal, publishes articles in English and Marshallese. The government's Marshall Islands Gazette contains official news but avoids political coverage. Two radio stations, one government owned and one church owned, carry news broadcasts from overseas and offer diverse views. The government station carries public service announcements and live broadcasts of legislative sessions, and cable television offers foreign news, entertainment, and occasional reports on local events.
U.S. armed forces radio and television broadcasts can be received in some areas.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 is 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. Recent surveys found the country's education system in serious trouble: 64 percent of its 900 school teachers failed both the reading and writing sections of the high school English test and only 18 percent passed both parts of the test. Between 80 and 90 percent of all high school graduates only have elementary school level math proficiency and 30 to 40 percent have elementary school level English proficiency. The government wants to introduce reforms, but resources are limited, and some of the most talented individuals do not return after going overseas for higher training.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely in the country. NGOs sponsored by or affiliated with Christian church organizations 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. The government raised judges' salaries in recent years to better attract and retain more qualified judges. Three former chief justices either resigned or were fired by the government in the late 1990s. Nearly all judges, prosecutors, and public defenders are foreigners because few Marshallese have law degrees. There were no reports of police abuse of suspects or prisoners. Detention centers and prisons provide a basic level of comfort.
Social and economic discrimination against women is widespread despite the fact that the country is a matrilineal society, where traditional rank and property are passed through female bloodlines. Domestic violence against women is often alcohol-related. The Marshall Islands has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the Pacific region. Two new HIV/AIDS cases were confirmed in 2005, bringing to three the total number of documented cases in the island republic.