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Christopher Loeak was elected president of the Marshall Islands by parliament on January 3, 2012. Also during the year, the United States announced that it would hire fewer workers at its military facilities in the country, and would phase out funding for college scholarships while focusing on supporting primary school education.
The atolls and islands that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands were claimed by Germany in 1885 and occupied by Japan during World War I. The islands came under U.S. control during World War II, and the United States administered them under United Nations trusteeship in 1947. The Marshall Islands became an independent state in 1986.
The Marshall Islands maintains close relations with the United States under a Compact of Free Association. The first compact, which came into force in 1986, allows the United States to maintain military facilities in the Marshall Islands in exchange for defense guarantees, development assistance, and visa-free access for Marshallese to live, work, study, and obtain health care and social services in the United States. The Marshall Islands relies on compact funds for almost 70 percent of its annual budget.
An amended compact with new funding and accountability requirements took effect in 2004 and will run through 2023. The deal provides the Marshall Islands with annual transfers of $57 million from the United States until 2013 and $62 million from 2014 to 2023. In exchange, the United States will continue its use of the Kwajalein missile-testing site—the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles—through 2066.
In 2011, the United States agreed to pay a group of Kwajalein landowners $32 million through 2066 for the use of their land. Local populations have expressed concern about health and environmental hazards posed by the testing facility, asserting that the 67 nuclear bomb tests conducted in the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls have left the former uninhabitable and the latter partly contaminated. To compensate past, present, and future victims of the tests, the United States created a $150 million Nuclear Claims Fund, though critics say the fund is inadequate to fulfill the $2 billion in awards made to Marshall Island residents by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which was established in 1988 as part of the first compact.
The United States has rejected these calls on the grounds that it has paid $1.5 billion for personal injury and property damage in addition to its contributions to the Nuclear Claims Fund.
Although no party initially emerged as a clear winner in the November 2011 parliamentary elections, the Aelon Kein Ad (AKA) party secured a majority of 20 seats after victorious independent candidates joined the party.
As for many other small Pacific island states, rising sea levels and a shortage of safe drinking water are serious problems for the Marshall Islands. With limited education and employment opportunities, about one-third of the country’s citizens are overseas, mostly in the United States. The government adopted austerity measures in 2011 in response to the global economic downtown, which prompted a drop in tourism. In May 2012, the United States announced that it would reduce the number of local employees at its military facilities, which is expected to increase the unemployment rate; the number of local workers had already dropped from 1,200 to fewer than 900 over the past four years.
On January 3, 2012, the 33-member parliament voted 21 to 11 to elect Christopher Loeak, a traditional chief and previous cabinet member, as the sixth president of the Marshall Islands, defeating incumbent, Jurelang Zedkaia. Loeak was inaugurated on January 17. He appointed Hilda Heine, the only doctoral degree holder in the Marshall Islands and the country’s only female legislator, as the minister of education.
The Marshall Islands is an electoral democracy. The president is chosen for a four-year term by the unicameral parliament (Nitijela), from among its 33 members, who 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 two main political parties are the AKA party and the United Democratic Party.
Corruption is a serious problem, and international donors have called on the Marshall Islands to improve accountability and transparency. A 2011 investigation into a scheme to defraud the government led to charges against 12 people, including transportation and communication minister Kenneth Tedi, marking the first time a cabinet minister faced criminal charges. Tedi received a 30-day suspended jail sentence and a fine of $1,000, which critics argued was too light a penalty.
The government generally respects freedoms of speech and the press. A privately owned newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal, publishes articles in English and Marshallese. The government’s Marshall Islands Gazette provides official news but avoids political coverage. Broadcast outlets include both government- and church-owned radio stations, and cable television offers a variety of international news and entertainment programs. Residents in some parts of the country can also access U.S. armed forces radio and television. The government does not restrict internet access, but penetration rates are low due to cost and technical difficulties.
Religious and academic freedoms are respected in practice. The quality of secondary education remains low, and four-year college education is rare. In June 2012, the U.S. government announced that it would phase out college scholarships to Marshall Island youths in three years, instead using the money to bolster basic education with an emphasis on student performance.
Citizen groups, many of which are sponsored by or affiliated with church organizations and provide social services, operate freely. The government broadly interprets constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association to cover trade unions.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. In 2012, the Pacific Judicial Development Program gave the Marshall Islands the highest marks among 14 Pacific island states for judiciary transparency. Nearly all judges and attorneys are recruited from overseas. To ease the backlog of land dispute cases, the government revived use of Traditional Rights Courts in 2010 to make advisory rulings to the High Court. Police brutality is generally not a problem, and detention centers and prisons meet minimum international standards.
Tensions persist between the local population and Chinese migrants, who control much of the country’s retail sector.
The Marshall Islands has a tradition of matrilineal inheritance in tribal rank and personal property, but social and economic discrimination against women is widespread. The country is a destination for foreign women trafficked into prostitution in local bars.