Background Notes : Marshall Islands 1996

by US State Department

Official Name: Republic of the Marshall Islands


Area: 181 sq. km. (approximately 70 sq. mi.) of islands scattered over 500,000 sq. mi. of the Western Pacific; slightly larger than Washington, DC. Cities: Capital--Majuro (pop. 225000). Other cities--Ebeye, Jaluit. Terrain: 29 low-lying coral atolls and islands. Climate: Tropical with a wet season from May to November.


Nationality: Noun and adjective--Marshallese.
Population (1996 est.): 56,000.
Annual growth rate: 4%.
Ethnic groups: 90% Marshallese, 10% U.S., Filipino, Chinese, New Zealander, and Korean.
Religions: Christian, mostly Protestant.
Languages: English; two major Marshallese dialects from Malayo-Polynesian family; Japanese.
Education: Literacy (1995)--60%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--50/1,000. Life expectancy--men 61 yrs.; women 64 yrs.
Work force--about 15,000: Services, including government--58%. Construction and services--21%. Agriculture and fishing--21%.


Type: Parliamentary democracy in free association with the U.S.; the Compact of Free Association entered into force October 21, 1986.
Independence: October 21, 1986 from the U.S.-administered UN trusteeship.
Constitution: May 1, 1979.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state), cabinet. Legislative-- unicameral parliament Nitijela and consultative Council of Iroij (traditional leaders). Judicial--Supreme Court, high court, district and community courts, traditional rights court.
Political Parties: No formal political parties.
Suffrage: Universal at age 18.
Administrative subdivisions: 24 local governments.
Flag: Deep blue background with two rays, one orange and one white, and a 24-point star.


GDP: Gross domestic product at current market prices was an estimated USD 105.3 million in 1995 with real GDP growing at an average of 2.7 percent annually over the 1991-95 period. More than two-thirds of GDP was derived from trade and services, predominately those provided by Government. Collectively agriculture, fishing, and modest manufacturing produced only about one-sixth of GDP. Central Government expenditures were USD 95.9 million in the fiscal year ending in September 1995 with capital expenditures accounting for 30 percent as compared to thirteen percent in FY 94. Financing of Government spending came from grants (48.5 million mostly U.S. Compact funding), domestic tax and non-tax (USD 36.0 Million) and deficit financing (USD 114 million).

Per capita income (est.): USD 1,600 (factoring in U.S. assistance through Compact of Free Association payments; USD 200-600 without U.S. payments).

Natural resources: Marine resources, including mariculture, and possible deep seabed minerals.

Agriculture: Copra (dried coconut meat), taro, breadfruit.

Industry: Copra processing.

Major trading partners: U.S., Japan, Australia, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand.

Official currency: U.S. dollar.


The Marshalls are comprised of 29 atolls and major islands, which form two parallel groups--the "Ratak" (sunrise) chain and the "Ralik" (sunset) chain.

Nearly three-fourths of the nation's population lives in Majuro and Ebeye. The outer islands are sparsely populated due to lack of employment opportunities and economic development.

The Marshallese are of Micronesian origin, which is traced to a combination of peoples who emigrated from Southeast Asia in the remote past.

The matrilineal Marshallese culture revolves around a complex clan system tied to land ownership.

Virtually all Marshallese are Christian, most of them Protestant. Roman Catholics account for a small segment of the population. Other Christian denominations include Seventh-day Adventist, Mormon, Salvation Army, and Jehovah's Witness. A small Bahai community also exists.

Both Marshallese and English are the official languages. English is spoken by most of the urban population. However, both the Nitijela (parliament) and national radio use Marshallese.

The public school system provides education through grade 12, although admission to secondary school is selective. The elementary program employs a bilingual/bicultural curriculum. English is introduced in the 4th grade. There is one post-secondary institution in the Marshall Islands--the College of the Marshall Islands.


Little is clearly understood about the prehistory of the Marshall Islands. That successive waves of migratory peoples from Southeast Asia spread across the Western Pacific about 3,000 years ago and that some of them landed on and remained on these islands is about all that researchers agree upon. The Spanish explorer Alvarode Saavendra landed there in 1529. The islands were claimed by Spain in 1874. They were named for English explorer John Marshall, who visited them in 1799.

Germany established a protectorate in 1885 and set up trading stations on the islands of Jaluit and Ebon to carry out the flourishing copra (dried coconut meat) trade. Marshallese Iroij (high chiefs) continued to rule under indirect colonial German administration.

At the beginning of World War I, Japan assumed control of the Marshall Islands. Their headquarters remained at the German center of administration, Jaluit. U.S. Marines and army troops took control from the Japanese in early 1944, following intense fighting on Kwajalein and Enewetak atolls. In 1947, the United States, as the occupying power, entered into an agreement with the UN Security Council to administer Micronesia, including the Marshall Islands, known as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

On May 1, 1979, in recognition of the evolving political status of the Marshall Islands, the United States recognized the constitution of the Marshall Islands and the establishment of the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The constitution incorporates both American and British constitutional concepts.


The legislative branch of the government consists of the Nitijela (parliament) with an advisory council of high chiefs. The Nitijela has 33 members from 24 districts elected for concurrent 4-year terms. Members are called senators. The president is elected by the Nitijela from among its members. Presidents pick cabinet members from the Nitijela. Amata Kabua was elected as the first President of the republic in 1979. Subsequently, he was re-elected to 4-year terms in 1983, 1987, 1991, and 1996.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands has four court systems: Supreme Court, high court, district and community courts, and the traditional rights court. Trial is by jury or judge. Jurisdiction of the traditional rights court is limited to cases involving titles or land rights or other disputes arising from customary law and traditional practice.

Principal Government Officials

Head of State--President Amata Kabua

Minister of Foreign Affairs--Phillip Muller

Ambassador to the U.S.--Banny de Brum

Ambassador to the UN--Laurence N. Edwards

The Republic of the Marshall Islands maintains an embassy at 2433 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-234- 5414).

The Marshall Islands' mission to the United Nations is located at the News Building, 220 E. 42nd St., 31st Floor, New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212-983-3040).

Consulates are located at 1888 Lusitana St., Suite 301, Honolulu, HI 96813 (tel. 808-545-7767) and 1500 Quail St., Suite 210, Newport Beach, CA 92660 (tel. 714-474-0331).


Citizens of the Marshall Islands live with a relatively new democratic political system combined with a hierarchical traditional culture. As in some other Pacific island nations, potential conflict has been avoided by virtue of the fact that one of the highest chiefs, Amata Kabua, remains President.

There have been a number of local and national elections since the Republic of the Marshall Islands was founded, and in general, democracy has functioned well.

There have been some incidents of human rights concern, however, such as the government urging a high court judge to resign or putting pressure on the local newspaper because of press criticism.

In the 1991 national election, the Ralik-Ratak Democratic Party (RRDP) was formed to run against President Kabua and his supporters. The governing party was later called the Government Party. The RRDP elected only two candidates to the Nitijela, but the party remains an alternative for people dissatisfied with the national government.


The government is the largest employer, employing 34% of the workforce. GDP is derived mainly from payments made by the United States under the terms of the Compact of Free Trade Association. Direct U.S. aid accounted for $40 million of the Marshalls' 1992 budget of $65 million.

The economy combines a small subsistence sector and a modern, urban sector. The subsistence sector, on the outer islands, is fueled by the production of copra and handicrafts. The modern service-oriented economy is located in Majuro and Ebeye. It is sustained by government expenditures and the U.S. Army installation at Kwajalein Atoll, which gives a boost to the economy in its own right. The airfield there also serves as a national hub for Air Marshall Islands.

The modern sector consists of wholesale and retail trade, restaurants, banking and insurance, construction and repair services, professional services, and copra processing. Copra cake and oil are by far the nation's largest exports. At $1.8 million, copra accounted for 79% of 1989 exports. Copra production, the most important single commercial activity for the past 100 years, now depends on government subsidies, however. The subsidies, more a social policy than an economic strategy, help reduce migration from outer atolls to densely populated Majuro and Ebeye.

Marine resources, including fishing, opening a cannery, and aquaculture, as well as tourism development and agriculture are top government development priorities. The Marshall Islands is working to establish a fishing fleet and sells fishing rights to other nations as a source of income. As a small nation, the Marshall Islands must import a wide variety of goods, including foodstuffs, consumer goods, machinery, and petroleum products.


While the Government of the Marshall Islands is free to conduct its own foreign relations, it does so under the terms of the Compact of Free Association (see U.S.-Marshallese Relations). Since independence, the Republic of the Marshall Islands has established relations with a number of nations, including most other Pacific Island nations. Regional cooperation, through membership in various regional and international organizations, is a key element in its foreign policy.

The Marshall Islands became a member of the United Nations in September 1991. The Marshall Islands maintains embassies in the U.S., Fiji, Japan, and China.


After more than a decade of negotiation, the Marshall Islands and the United States signed the Compact of Free Association on June 25, 1983. The people of the Marshall Islands approved the compact in a UN-observed plebiscite on September 7, 1983. The U.S. Congress subsequently reviewed the compact, adding several amendments which were accepted by the Government of the Marshall Islands.

The compact was signed into U.S. law on January 14, 1986 (PL 99- 239), and entered into force on October 21, 1986. The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a sovereign nation in "free association" with the United States. Under the compact, the United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense of the Marshall Islands, and the Government of the Marshall Islands is obligated to refrain from taking actions that would be incompatible with these security and defense responsibilities. The duration of the compact is 15 years (ending in 2001), with renegotiations to begin in the 13th year (1999).

A major subsidiary agreement of the compact allows the United States continued use of the Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) missile test range until 2016. Kwajalein, an atoll consisting of approximately 90 islets around the largest lagoon in the world, is used by the Department of Defense on a lease agreement with the Government of the Marshall Islands. The U.S. Department of Defense controls the use of some islands within Kwajalein atoll.

Another major subsidiary agreement of the compact provides for settlement of all claims arising from the U.S. nuclear tests conducted at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls from 1946 to 1958.

The United States and the Marshall Islands have full diplomatic relations. The Marshall Islands have expressed an interest in attracting U.S. investment and hosted an Overseas Private Investment Corporation mission in March 1992.

Under the terms of the compact, more than 40 U.S. Federal Government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Postal Service, the Small Business Administration, and Federal Emergency Management Agency operate programs or render assistance to the Marshall Islands. As of June 1996, the Peace Corps will suspend its program in the Marshall Islands.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials

Ambassador--Joan M. Plaisted

Deputy Chief of Mission--Thomas M. Murphy

Administrative Officer--Gail Gardner

Military Liaison Officer--Thomas Keene

The U.S. embassy in the Marshall Islands is located on Lagoon Road, Majuro (tel. 692-247-4011). Mailing Address: P.O. Box 1379, Majuro, MH 96960-1379.


Customs: Proof of U.S. citizenship, preferably a passport, but not visas, are required of American citizens traveling to the Marshall Islands. Visitors can obtain permits to stay up to three months by presenting an onward or return ticket and evidence of sufficient funds to cover the period of stay.

Immunizations against cholera and yellow fever may be required of travelers coming from infected areas. AIDS testing may be required of visitors staying longer than 3 months.

Climate and clothing: Climate is tropical, with high humidity, an average temperature of 84 degrees, and little seasonal change. Rainfall varies from 6-14 inches monthly. Dress is casual. Shorts are not acceptable as street wear for either sex.

Health: Typhoid, hepatitis B, and venereal diseases are endemic in the Marshall Islands. Typhoid and polio shots are recommended. Health care is adequate for minor medical problems. Tap water is not potable; bottled water is available. Travelers should consult latest information.

Telecommunications: Domestic and international telephone service is available. Telephone service outside Majuro and Kwajalein is unavailable. Outer islands are linked by an HF radio net. Majuro is across the international date line, 16 standard time zones ahead of eastern standard time.

Transportation: Flights arrive in Majuro from Honolulu, Guam, and Fiji several times a week. Domestic flights service 25 airstrips on 22 inhabited atolls. Transportation between islands is also available by sea. Taxis are available during normal work hours in Majuro, and public transportation is exceedingly limited. Rental cars are available, but there are only 152 km. (95 mi.) of paved roads in the Marshalls (mostly on Majuro and Ebeye).

[Politics and Economics]

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

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