The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a stable democracy with regular, competitive elections, an independent judiciary, and a free press. Civil liberties are generally respected. Persistent problems include corruption, gender discrimination, and domestic violence.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In March, a measure that would make the Marshall Islands the first country in the world to introduce cryptocurrency as legal tender became law, drawing international criticism due to the scheme’s risks.
- In November, President Hilda Heine narrowly survived a confidence vote brought against her. Her opponents in the parliament claimed the vote was due to the controversial cryptocurrency plan, but Heine argued that it was because of her refusal to support plans to create a tax haven that would be governed independently.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 38 / 40 (+1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The president, who is elected by the unicameral legislature from among its members for four-year terms, nominates fellow lawmakers to serve as cabinet ministers, and they are formally appointed by the parliament speaker.
In January 2016, following legislative elections in November 2015, Casten Nemra was elected president by a narrow margin with support from the governing Aelon Kein Ad (AKA) party. However, he lost a confidence vote only two weeks later after shifts in party affiliation gave the opposition Kien Eo Am (KEA) party a majority. Hilda Heine was chosen to replace Nemra. In November 2018, Heine narrowly survived a confidence vote brought against her. Her opponents in the parliament claimed the vote was due to a controversial plan to introduce cryptocurrency as legal tender, but Heine argued that it was because of her refusal to support plans to create a tax haven that would be governed independently.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The parliament, known as the Nitijela, consists of 33 members, with 19 directly elected in single-member districts and five in multimember districts with between two and five seats. Elections are officially nonpartisan, and lawmakers are free to form alliances and change party affiliations after taking office.
The 2015 elections featured significant turnover, with 14 of the 33 seats changing hands. The results were a blow to the government of incumbent president Chris Loeak, who saw about half of his cabinet members voted out of office. There were no reports of violence or complaints of fraud or irregularities. Voter turnout was lower than usual at 46 percent, though some observers suggested that the list of registered voters was inflated with deceased citizens, making the turnout figure artificially low.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
The constitutional and legal framework provides for democratic elections, and it is implemented impartially.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 16 / 16 (+1)
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4 (+1)
Despite the fact that parliamentary elections are technically nonpartisan, politicians can organize in party groupings that compete freely and do not encounter obstacles from state or nonstate actors. Parties tend to function as loose coalitions among lawmakers, and party switching is common.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because although parliamentary elections are formally nonpartisan, politicians organize in party groupings that compete freely in practice.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
The country has an established record of democratic transfers of power between rival party groups. Some governments have been replaced as a result of elections, while others have been toppled by no-confidence votes like that which brought Heine to power in 2016.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
There are no significant undue constraints on the political choices of voters or candidates. Traditional chiefs play an influential but gradually waning role in politics.
The influence of China on lawmakers in the Marshall Islands was a source of controversy in 2018. President Heine claimed that the confidence vote against her was coordinated by Chinese business interests seeking to create an independently governed tax haven on an atoll in the Marshall Islands; Heine opposed the plan, arguing that it would enable widespread money laundering. She claimed that several of the legislators who initiated the confidence vote had ties to a Chinese businessman who had initially proposed the tax-haven plan.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4
Naturalized citizens were allowed to run as candidates in the 2015 elections after a court ruling found that a 1980 law requiring parliamentary candidates to have at least one Marshallese parent and traditional land rights was unconstitutional.
Women have full political rights, though traditional gender roles have limited their participation to some extent, and just three women won seats in the 2015 elections. Heine is the country’s first female president and the first female leader of a Pacific island state.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 10 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
There are no undue restrictions on the elected government’s ability to form and implement laws and policies. A body of traditional leaders, the Council of Iroij, has an advisory role under the constitution. Its 12 members can offer joint opinions and request reconsideration of any bill affecting customary law, traditional practices, land tenure, and related matters.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands has close relations with the United States under a 1986 Compact of Free Association, which allows the US military to operate in the country in exchange for defense guarantees and development assistance. A component of the compact in force through 2023 calls for the United States to provide about $70 million in annual aid, including contributions to a trust fund for the country. US funds to the Marshall Islands for fiscal year 2018 were directed to the education, health, and infrastructure sectors.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Corruption has been a chronic problem, though auditing bodies and the independent courts are somewhat effective in detecting abuses and holding officials accountable. High-ranking public officials, however, are rarely prosecuted for corruption. Corruption is most prevalent in foreign aid, government procurement, and transfers.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
There is not a strong legal mechanism for obtaining access to government information, but documents can often be obtained through the courts. Auditors have repeatedly found invalid or poorly documented spending practices at government ministries, agencies, and state-owned enterprises. In November 2018, the government and the World Bank began a program aimed at strengthening public-procurement and budget-reporting processes, with the ultimate goal of enhancing transparency.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 55 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 16 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
The government generally respects the freedoms of speech and the press. A privately owned newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal, publishes articles in English and Marshallese. 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, reaching nearly 40 percent of the population by 2018, but it remains limited due to poor infrastructure and high costs.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Religious freedoms are respected in practice. Religious groups are not required to register with the government, but those that register as nonprofits are eligible for tax exemptions.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
There are no significant restrictions on academic freedom.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Citizens are generally free to discuss their political opinions, and there are no reports of improper government surveillance.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
The government upholds constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly. Protests in recent years have addressed issues including climate change, women’s rights, and the legacy of US nuclear weapons tests in the country.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Civil society groups, many of which are sponsored by or affiliated with church organizations and provide social services, are able to operate freely.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Constitutional and legal provisions that protect freedom of association also apply to trade unions. However, there are no laws regulating the right to strike, and few employers are large enough to support union activity among their workers.
F. RULE OF LAW: 15 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the judiciary generally operates without political interference. Judges are appointed by the cabinet on the recommendation of the Judicial Service Commission, and the legislature confirms the appointments. High Court and Supreme Court judges can only be removed by a two-thirds vote in the Nitijela, for clear failure or inability to perform their duties or for serious crimes or abuses.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
The authorities generally observe legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention. The state provides lawyers for indigent defendants, and due process standards for trials are upheld.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
Violent street crime and other such threats to physical security are relatively rare, though conditions in the country’s few prison and jail facilities are sometimes overcrowded or otherwise below international standards.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Women generally enjoy equal treatment under the law, but there is no explicit ban on discrimination in employment, and women face disadvantages in the workplace in practice. While same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in 2005, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is not prohibited by law.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 13 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Freedom of movement is generally respected. Marshallese citizens have the right to live and work in the United States and to travel there without a visa.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
Individuals have the rights to own property and establish private businesses, and these rights are largely observed in practice.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Personal social freedoms are mostly upheld. However, the minimum age for marriage is 16 for women and 18 for men; about a quarter of women aged 20–24 were married by age 18. While domestic violence remains widespread, reporting of the problem has apparently increased in recent years due to improved processes for obtaining orders of protection.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
The government enforces a minimum wage law, though it does not apply to the informal sector. Some local and East Asian women are subjected to forced prostitution in a trade that depends on visiting freight or fishing vessels. According to the US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report, the government has increased law enforcement efforts against trafficking and provided more services for victims.