Freedom in the World
Prime Minister Litokwa Tomeing survived his second vote of no confidence in March 2009 after he dismissed the foreign minister for publicly criticizing him. Another 1,500 residents left the Marshall Islands in 2009 for better work and education opportunities overseas; approximately one-third of the country’s 54,000 citizens currently works or resides overseas.
The atolls and islands that make up the present-day Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) were claimed by Germany in 1885 and occupied by Japan during World War I. U.S. forces took control during World War II, and the RMI was placed under U.S. trusteeship in 1947. The country gained independence in 1986.
The RMI maintains close relations with the United States under a Compact of Free Association that first came into force in 1986. The pact allows the United States to maintain military facilities in the RMI in exchange for defense guarantees and development assistance. An amended compact that took effect in 2004 will run through 2023, promising annual U.S. transfers of $57 million over the first 10 years and $62 million per year for the following 10 years. The amended compact contains funding and accountability requirements that were absent in the original, but RMI citizens retain visa-free access to the United States to live, work, study, and seek medical services.
The 2004 compact extended use of the Kwajalein missile-testing range—the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles and missile-defense systems since 1964—through 2066, and it has long been a source of controversy among the local people. Landowners have rejected the amended compact, demanding higher annual rent payments of $19 million, instead of the U.S. offer of $15 million. Their rejection has placed significant pressure on the national government, as the RMI relies on compact funds for nearly two-thirds of its annual budget.
Compensation for the victims of nuclear weapons testing conducted at the Bikini and Enewetak atolls more than 50 years ago has been another point of contention. Bikini remains uninhabitable and Enewetak is partly contaminated. While a $150 million Nuclear Claims Fund is supposed to provide compensation for past, present, and future RMI claimants, victims argue that this sum is inadequate. The United States has refused to contribute more, maintaining that this sum is in addition to the $1.5 billion already paid out for personal injury and property damages under the original compact.
Results of the January 2008 general elections gave no clear majority to any single party. However, the elections were considered free and fair by international observers. Former speaker and traditional chief Litokwa Tomeing of the Aelon Kein Ad (Our Islands) party was chosen as the new president by 18 of the 33 parliament members. Tomeing pledged transparency and good governance and assured Taiwan of continued diplomatic ties. He also promised renegotiation of the amended compact to obtain higher rents, more development assistance, and full compensation for those affected by weapons tests. In October 2008, Tomeing survived an opposition-led vote of no confidence. He defeated a second no-confidence vote in March 2009, which had been initiated by his supporters in protest of his dismissal of Foreign Minister Tony deBrum, a representative for Kwajalein. DeBrum had openly criticized the prime minister for failing to work with landowners to attain higher rent payments from the United States.With limited education and employment opportunities, many residents take advantage of special privileges under the compact agreement and migrate to the United States. In 2009, a record 1,500 residents left the RMI. Approximately one-third of all RMI citizens currently reside overseas, primarily in the United States.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
The RMI is an electoral democracy. The president is chosen for a four-year term by the unicameral House of Representatives (Nitijela), from among its members. The chamber’s 33 members are directly elected to four-year terms. An advisory body, the Council of Chiefs (Iroij), consists of 12 traditional leaders who are consulted on customary law. The two main political parties are Aelon Kein Ad and the United Democratic Party.
Corruption is a serious problem, and there has been little progress on reform efforts and improvements in transparency. A 2009 audit found that the Health Ministry could not account for $273,000 spent in 2008. The country was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of 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 wide variety of international news and entertainment programs. Residents can also access U.S. armed forces radio and television in some parts of the country. The government does not restrict internet access, but penetration rates are low due to cost and technical difficulties.
Freedom of religion and academic freedom are respected in practice. The quality of secondary education remains low and four-year college education is rare. However, the College of the Marshall Islands offers two-year professional training courses and received full U.S. accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in 2009 for the first time in seven years.
Citizen groups operate freely in the country. Many are sponsored by or affiliated with church organizations and provide social services. The government broadly interprets constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association to cover trade unions. There is no formal right to strike or to engage in collective bargaining, but neither activity is prohibited.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. The government has raised judges’ salaries in recent years to attract and retain more qualified jurists. Nearly all judges and attorneys are recruited from overseas. Police brutality is generally not a problem. Detention centers and prisons meet minimum international standards.
Despite the RMI’s tradition of matrilineal inheritance in tribal rank and personal property, social and economic discrimination against women is widespread. Domestic violence against women is often alcohol related. Currently, only one woman sits in the parliament.