US Department of State
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
The Marshall Islands Human Rights Practices 1996

The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a self-governing nation under the Compact of Free Association with the United States, is composed of 34 atolls in the central Pacific, with a total land area of about 70 square miles. The approximately 56,000 inhabitants are of Micronesian origin and concentrated primarily on Majuro and Kwajalein atolls.

The Constitution provides for free and fair elections, executive and legislative branches, and an independent judiciary. The legislature consists of the Nitijela, a 33-member Parliament, and a Council of Chiefs (Iroij), which serves a largely consultative function dealing with custom and traditional practice. The President is elected by majority Nitijela vote and he appoints his Cabinet from its membership.

Under the Compact of Free Association, the United States is responsible for defense and national security, and the Marshall Islands has no external security force of its own. The national and local police forces have responsibility for internal security. These agencies honor constitutional and legal civil rights protections in executing their responsibilities.

The economy depends mainly on transfer payments from the United States. Coconut oil and copra exports, a small amount of tourism, and the fishing industry generate limited revenues.

The Government fully respects the human rights of its citizens, but its influence leads to occasional instances of media self-censorship in sensitive political or cultural areas.


Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution expressly forbids such practices, and there were no reports that officials employed them. Prison conditions, while Spartan, meet minimal international standards. The Government permits visits by human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government observes this prohibition.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial, and the Government generally respects this right.

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, the Government has injected itself into judicial matters. The President assumed and retained the Ministry of Justice portfolio following his January reelection until his death on December 20. The Acting President has now assumed the Justice portfolio. Government interest in an allegedly improper probate procedure involving the relative of an influential local leader led to the resignations of the Chief Justices of both the Supreme Court and the High Court. In another action, legislation, followed by direct instructions from the Cabinet, caused the Attorney General to remove from the Social Security Administration a private counsel who had upset influential individuals by his efforts to collect outstanding debts from them. In a further action, the legislature passed a bill denying the application of certain foreign court money judgment decisions in the Marshall Islands.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides for freedom from such practices, government authorities respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject to effective legal sanction.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the Government generally honors these rights in practice. However, government influence leads to occasional self-censorship by the media in areas of political or cultural sensitivity. There are four operating radio stations, one government owned and three privately owned, including one owned by a prominent member of the opposition. There is a cable television company which normally shows U.S. programming but occasionally covers local events. The cable company is owned and operated by members of the political opposition.

A U.S. citizen and longtime resident operates the country's sole privately owned newspaper. The editor and two reporters are U.S. citizens as well.

The Government publishes a monthly gazette containing official news and notices only.

The Government respects academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and this is observed in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

There are no recent reports of refugees. The Government has not formulated a policy regarding refugees, asylees, or first asylum.

Section 3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage for citizens 18 years of age and older. The Government is chosen by secret ballot in free and open elections every 4 years. There are no restrictions on the formation of political parties, although political activity by foreigners is prohibited. Until his death in December, the country had the same President since 1979 due primarily to traditional loyalties and concentrated political influence. The election of a new President took place January 14, 1997.

There are no legal impediments to women's participation in government and politics. Two women hold deputy minister positions. The mayor of Majuro, the country's capital and principal urban center, also is a woman. Society is matrilineal, and those men and women who exercise traditional leadership and land ownership powers base their rights either on their own positions in the family, or on relationships deriving from their mother's and sister's lineage. Although women have an increasing role in government, their cultural responsibilities and roles are not seen to be managerial or executive in nature, and they remain underrepresented in Parliament and other government positions.

Section 4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigations of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

While there are no official restrictions, no local nongovernmental human rights organizations have been formed. No international human rights organization has expressed interest or concern or visited the country.

Section 5. Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, place of birth, family status or descent, and the Government respects these provisions.


There are allegations of violence against women, mainly related to domestic abuse. Wife beating is not condoned in society, and most assaults occur while the assailant is under the influence of alcohol. The Government's health office advises that few such cases are reported to the authorities, but many more are believed to go unreported. Assault is a criminal offense, but women involved in domestic violence are reluctant to prosecute spouses in the court system, and disputes are usually resolved through traditional methods involving apology and reparation to the members of the aggrieved party's family. Women's groups have been formed to publicize women's issues and to create a greater awareness of the rights of women. Violence against women outside the family is not considered a growing problem, although women in the urban centers would assume a risk by going out alone after dark.

Inheritance of property and of traditional rank is matrilineal, with women occupying positions of importance within the traditional system. No instances of unequal pay for equal work or sex-related job discrimination were reported.


The Government is committed to children's welfare through its programs of health care and education, but these have not been adequate to meet the needs of the country's sharply increasing population. Marshall Islands is working to incorporate the provisions of the Convention of the Rights of the Child into law. The Domestic Relations Amendment of 1993 defines child abuse and neglect and makes them criminal offenses. Other legislation requires teachers, caregivers, and other persons to report instances of child abuse and exempts them from civil or criminal liability as a consequence of making such a report. Child abuse is thought to be neither common, widespread, nor a growing problem, and there have been few child abuse prosecutions.

People with Disabilities

There is no apparent discrimination against disabled persons in employment, education, or in the provision of other state services. There are no building codes, and there is no legislation mandating access for the disabled.

Section 6. Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for the right of free association in general, and the Government interprets this right as allowing the existence of labor unions, although none has been formed to date. The Constitution does not provide for the right to strike, and the Government has not addressed this issue.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

There is no legislation concerning collective bargaining or trade union organization. However, there are no impediments to the organization of trade unions or to collective bargaining. Wages in the cash economy are determined by market factors in accordance with the minimum wage and other laws.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits involuntary servitude, and there is no evidence of its practice.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law does not prohibit the employment of children. Children are not typically employed in the wage economy, but some assist their families with fishing, agriculture, and other small-scale domestic enterprises. The law requires compulsory education for children from 6 to 14 years of age; but the Government does not enforce this law due to a lack of classrooms and teachers. There is no law or regulation setting a minimum age for employment of children.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is a government-specified minimum wage established by law, and it is adequate to maintain a decent standard of living in this subsistence economy where extended families are expected to help less fortunate members. The minimum wage for all government and private sector employees is $2.00 per hour. (The U.S. dollar is the local currency.) The Ministry of Resources and Development oversees minimum wage regulations, and its oversight has been deemed adequate. Foreign employees and Marshallese trainees of private employers who have invested in or established a business in the country are exempt from minimum wage requirements. This exemption does not affect a significant segment of the work force.

There is no legislation concerning maximum hours of work or occupational safety and health. Most businesses are closed and people generally refrain from work on Sunday.

A government labor office makes recommendations to the Nitijela on working conditions, i.e., minimum wage, legal working hours and overtime payments, and occupational health and safety standards in accordance with International Labor Organization conventions. The office periodically convenes board meetings that are open to the public. There is no legislation specifically giving workers the right to remove themselves from situations which endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their continued employment, and there is no legislation protecting workers who file complaints about such conditions.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

US Department of State (1997) Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The Marshall Islands Human Rights Practices. 1996. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997.

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

(c) US Department of State 1997
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