In March 2013, the Republic of the Marshall Islands signed a new agreement with the United States to have U.S. Navy ships assist U.S. Coast Guard vessels and local officials to patrol the island nation’s maritime exclusive economic zone.
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 of the Marshall Islands can work, live, study, and obtain federal health care and social services in the United States; about one-third of the islands’ citizens are in the United States. Compact funds pay for three quarters of the Marshall Islands’ annual budget, and U.S. military facilities provide nearly 1,000 local jobs. The compact will run through 2023 with annual transfers of $57 million through 2013 and $62 million from 2014 to 2023.
The United States will have use of the Kwajalein missile-testing site until 2066. As the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles, 67 atomic and nuclear bomb tests in the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls have left the former uninhabitable and the latter partly contaminated, and local populations worry about health and environmental hazards from testing activities. To compensate 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 Islands residents by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which was established in 1988 as part of the first compact.
The Marshall Islands faces threats from climate change and rising sea levels. Additionally, a prolonged lack of rainfall has compelled the government to seek more international donations of emergency food, water, desalination machines, and spare parts to avert the spread of hunger and disease.
POLITICAL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES:
Political Rights: 36 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 11 / 12
The Marshall Islands’ unicameral parliament (Nitijela) has 33 members or senators, 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 then 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. In January 2012, the parliament voted 21-to-11 for Christopher Loeak to replace Jurelang Zedkaia as the president.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16
Citizens enjoy a high degree of political freedom. The AKA and the United Democratic Party are the two main parties. In 2011, Zedkaia left the AKA and formed Kein 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 March 2013, the United States withheld $1 million in compact funds when the government could not answer for $3 million in spending, $2.5 million of which came out of compact funds.
In January 2013, the Marshall Islands’ Public Service Commission stated that reform of the country’s civil service was critically needed. An audit by the commission revealed numerous positions with no job descriptions, job titles that did not match actual work, and other problems.
Civil Liberties: 55 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16
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. Like many small island states, internet use is low; about 2 percent of residents have internet access, and only 25 percent have mobile phones. The lack of access is largely due to an outdated communication network and high costs.
Religious and academic freedoms are respected in practice. The quality of secondary education remains low, and four-year college education is rare. In April 2013, the United States announced that it would terminate funding that pays the salary of teachers who have no college education.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12
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.
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 to ease the 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.
In January 2013, the mayor of Majuro banished a 25-year old man accused of repeatedly robbing local residents in the capital to an outer island for five years. The mayor indicated that this traditional punishment may be returning in order to help curb crime in the capital.
Tensions persist between the local population and Chinese migrants, who control much of the retail sector.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 13 / 16
Social and economic discrimination against women remain widespread despite a tradition of matrilineal inheritance in tribal rank and personal property. Hilda Heine was the only woman elected to the parliament in the 2011 general elections. Domestic violence against women and girls, while illegal, frequently goes unreported, and critics say the government has done little to stop it or to assist victims.
Same-sex relations were legalized in 2005 with the same age of consent (16 years) for both males and females, but there are no legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
In July 2013, the U.S. Department of State named the country a sex trafficking destination and put it on its global watch list, citing a lack of effort to prevent trafficking. The Marshall Islands government claimed the report was baseless and excessive, noting that only a few incidents had occurred.
Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year
SOURCE: Freedom House, 2014: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2014/marshall-islands-0#.V...