Marshall Islands | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Marshall Islands

Marshall Islands

Freedom in the World 2015

2015 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The Marshall Islands maintains close relations with the United States under a Compact of Free Association, which allows U.S. military facilities to operate in the country in exchange for defense guarantees and development assistance. Citizens can work, live, study, and obtain federal health care and social services in the United States. Compact funds pay for three quarters of the annual budget of the Marshall Islands, and U.S. military facilities provide nearly 1,000 local jobs. The compact will run through 2023.

 The country is the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles, and 67 atomic and nuclear bomb tests in the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls have left the former uninhabitable and the latter partly contaminated, leading local populations to worry about health and environmental hazards from testing activities. The United States has created a $150 million fund to help victims, though critics doubt that the fund can fulfill the $2 billion awarded to Marshall Islands residents by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which was established in 1988 as part of the first compact. In April 2014, the Marshall Islands sued the United States and eight other countries for failing to negotiate nuclear disarmament as required under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The Marshall Islands is threatened by climate change and rising sea levels. Additionally, a prolonged lack of rainfall has increased reliance on international donations of emergency food, water, desalination machines, and other resources to avert hunger and disease.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 36 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 11 / 12

The unicameral parliament (Nitijela) has 33 members who are elected to four-year terms from 24 electoral districts that roughly correspond to each atoll. All citizens 18 years and older can vote. The senators elect one of their own as president for a four-year term; the president holds most executive power. An advisory body, the Council of Chiefs (Iroij), has 12 traditional leaders who are consulted on customary law.

In the 2011 parliamentary elections, Aelon Kein Ad (AKA) took 20 seats, and Christopher Loeak was elected to replace Jurelang Zedkaia as the president.

Loeak defeated a no-confidence motion in March 2014 that was sparked by the controversial appointment of Jami el-Sayed, former head of Lebanon’s secret service, to represent the Marshall Islands in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The government rescinded the appointment following complaints from the parliament, which had not been consulted in the matter.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

Citizens enjoy a high degree of political freedom. The AKA and the United Democratic Party (UDP) are the two main parties. In 2011, Zedkaia left the AKA and formed Kien Eo Am to contest that year’s elections. However, politicians typically run as independents and align with a party after they are elected.


C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12

Corruption is a serious problem, and international donors have demanded improvements in accountability and transparency. In 2013, the United States withheld $1 million in compact funds when the government could not account for approximately $3 million in spending, $2.5 million of which had originated compact funds. The Public Service Commission has expressed that reform of the civil service is critically needed, as a 2013 audit uncovered many positions with no descriptions, titles that did not match the work performed, and other problems. In January 2014, the government announced plans to reform the procurement system after eight officials, including the procurement chief, became the focus of a bribery investigation.


Civil Liberties: 55 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16

The government generally respects the freedoms of speech and the press. A privately owned newspaper 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. Internet access is expanding but remains limited due to an outdated communication network and high costs.

Religious and academic freedoms are respected in practice. The quality of secondary education remains low.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12

Citizen groups, many of which are sponsored by or affiliated with church organizations and provide social services, are able to operate freely. The government broadly interprets constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association to also apply to trade unions.


F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16

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 judicial transparency. Nearly all judges and attorneys are recruited from overseas. The government revived use of Traditional Rights Courts in 2010 to make advisory rulings to the High Court as a way of alleviating a backlog of land dispute cases. Limited resources in personnel and funding are the most fundamental problems, contributing to long waits. Police brutality is generally not a problem. Detention centers and prisons meet minimum international standards.

Tensions persist between the local population and Chinese migrants, who control much of the retail sector.

Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 2005, but there are no legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 13 / 16

Societal discrimination against women remains widespread despite a tradition of matrilineal inheritance in the country. Only one woman sits in the parliament. Domestic violence against women and girls, while illegal, frequently goes unreported. Along with increased awareness of the problem, legal protections adopted in 2012 have encouraged more victims to seek help. Both courts and police have also shown improved responsiveness to cases of domestic abuse in recent years.

The Marshall Islands was on the Tier 2 Watch List of the U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Humans Report for lack of efforts to prevent trafficking. The government has contested the rating, claiming that there is no evidence of human trafficking in the Marshall Islands.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology