Freedom in the World
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Public debates continued in 2007 over the terms of the amended Compact of Free Association with the United States, particularly regarding U.S. rent payments to landowners on Kwajalein atoll and compensation for nuclear-test victims and their families. General elections on November 19 suffered irregularities and vote-counting delays; no clear winner of the presidency was announced by year’s end.
The atolls and islands that make up the present-day Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) were claimed by Germany in 1885 and occupied by Japan during World War I. U.S. forces took control during World War II, and the RMI was placed under U.S. trusteeship in 1947. In 1986, the RMI became an independent republic. More than two-thirds of its people live on the Kwajalein and Majuro atolls; a fifth live overseas in the U.S. and U.S. territories. The economy is heavily dependent on U.S. rent and assistance. Rising sea levels threaten the entire country.
Kessai Note in 2000 became the first commoner to hold the presidency after his United Democratic Party (UDP) won the 1999 general elections. The UDP again won a majority in the 2003 parliamentary elections, and Note secured a second term as president.
The RMI maintains close relations with the United States under a Compact of Free Association that came into force in 1986 to allow the U.S. to maintain military facilities in the RMI in exchange for defense guarantees and development assistance. An amended compact that took effect in 2004 will last through 2023. In it, the U.S. promises $57 million in transfers over the first 10 years and another $62 million in the next 10 years. RMI citizens also retain visa-free access to the United States to live, work, study, and seek medical services. The amended compact contains funding and accountability requirements absent in the original. Representatives from both countries sit in an oversight body to ensure funds are effectively spent. A 2007 U.S. government study found that for two years the RMI had not invested its trust fund in anything other than low-interest savings accounts. The RMI government also allegedly violated compact terms by borrowing $500,000 from the compact funds to pay for a shipment of fuel. The government maintained that the money was repaid to the account the next day.
The amended compact also extends use of the Kwajalein missile-testing range—the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles and missile-defense systems since 1964—through 2066. Landowners on the atoll have yet to agree to the amended compact. They want $19 million in annual rent, $4 million more than the U.S. has offered. Until the landowners agree, the amended compact cannot be enforced. The two countries also have to agree on compensation for victims of nuclear weapons tests on the Bikini and Enewetak atolls some 50 years ago. Over the course of 12 years, the United States detonated 67 nuclear devices totaling 108 megatons. Bikini remains uninhabitable, and Enewetak is partly contaminated. A $150 million Nuclear Trust Fund provides compensation for past, present, and future RMI claimants; to date, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal has awarded $1.5 billion in personal injury and property damages.
In July 2007, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) removed the RMI from its list of uncooperative tax havens.
Kessai Note, the first commoner to hold the presidency, was elected to office in the 1999 elections. He and his party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), won a majority again in the 2003 elections. He sought a third term in the November 2007 elections, facing stiff competition from the Our Islands Party. Voting was poorly managed: polling stations opened late in the capital, those in the outer island ran out of ballots, and overseas voters had a short window to request and return ballots. International monitors reported irregularities, including voters being told to put their names on ballot envelopes in clear violation of voting rules. Vote counting and recounts continued for weeks after the election. By year’s end, it remained unclear which party had won the simple majority in the 33-seat parliament required to form a new government.
The RMI is an electoral democracy. The president is chosen for a four-year term by the unicameral House of Representatives (Nitijela), from among its members. The 33 members of the Nitijela are directly elected to four-year terms. An advisory body, the Council of Chiefs (Iroij), consists of 12 traditional leaders who are consulted on customary law. The UDP is the ruling party, and the Ailin Kein Ad (Our Islands) is the main opposition.
The republic’s constitution requires the Nitijela to review the constitution once every 10 years; the last review was in 1994. A second review has yet to be held because fewer than two-thirds of all voters in the 2003 parliamentary elections endorsed it.
Corruption is a considerable problem. International and domestic critics have reported little progress on reform and improving transparency, although the government noted that the latter is a priority in its Vision 2018 national development strategy. The country was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press, although journalists occasionally practice self-censorship on sensitive political issues. 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. Broadcast outlets include a government radio station, a church-owned radio station, and in some areas, U.S. armed forces radio and television. Cable television also offers foreign news, entertainment, and occasional reports on local events. The government does not restrict internet access; penetration rates are low due to cost and technical access difficulties.
Freedom of religion and academic freedom are respected in practice. Four-year college education is rare; the College of the Marshall Islands offers two-year professional training courses. Research reported that only 18 percent of all 900 teachers passed both the reading and writing sections of the high school English test. Most high school graduates have only elementary-level math proficiency, and less than half have elementary-level English proficiency.
Citizen groups operate freely in the country. Many are sponsored by or affiliated with Christian church organizations to 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 to engage in collective bargaining; there are no formal prohibitions against such activities. The civil service has expanded by 50 percent since 1999, reaching 2,415 employees in March 2007, despite a growing budget deficit and no apparent increase in productivity.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. The government raised judges’ salaries in recent years to attract and retain more qualified jurists. Nearly all judges and attorneys are recruited from overseas. There were no reports of police abuse in 2007. Detention centers and prisons meet minimum international standards.
Social and economic discrimination against women is widespread despite the RMI’s tradition of matrilineal inheritance in tribal rank and personal property. Domestic violence against women is often alcohol related. Each year since 2000, nearly one-fifth of all babies were born to teenage mothers. Infection rates for sexually transmitted diseases are reportedly high among adolescents.