The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a constitutional republic led by President Hilda C. Heine. The Nitijela, the country’s parliament, elected Heine in early 2016 following free and fair multiparty elections in late 2015.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces.
Human rights issues included corruption.
The government did not initiate or conclude investigations or prosecutions of officials who committed human rights abuses.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The Majuro and Ebeye jail authorities routinely held drunk prisoners naked. Government officials stated they did this so that prisoners could not use their clothing to attempt suicide.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Treatment of prisoners and prison conditions were harsh and at times degrading.
Physical Conditions: No specialized prison facilities existed for juvenile or adult female prisoners at the jail in Majuro. Authorities did not hold women with men in the Majuro jail. Generally, female prisoners in the capital were held under house arrest, which involved taking away their passports and confining them to their homes at night. According to prison guards, in a few isolated incidents, women arrested for driving under the influence were held with male prisoners for 24 to 48 hours, usually over a weekend or local holiday, when it was not possible to process them quickly enough to put them immediately under house arrest.
A chief complaint in the Majuro jail was the lack of adequate ventilation. Prisoners were cramped in small cells with no air conditioning, windows, or fans, while the daily temperature outside was usually above 90 degrees. Prisoners had to supply their own electric fans. Lighting in cells was inadequate; prisoners had to supply their own lamps or other light sources. The facility was unsanitary; the guards reported that there were no janitors, and prisoners were given cleaning products.
The jail in Ebeye on Kwajalein Atoll, attached to the courthouse, is the only detention facility in the country other than the Majuro jail. In 2017 High Court judge Colin Winchester described Ebeye’s jail as “horrible” and “degrading for anyone who must be confined in it.” According to the judge, he observed 10 individuals incarcerated there, and “if there are two or three people there, it is at its humane limit.” National Police officials commented that Ebeye is supposed to send all prisoners to Majuro jail but does not always do so because of the high cost of transportation.
Authorities allowed prisoners to leave facilities periodically on work details or for meals at home. Police escorted prisoners needing medical treatment to the Majuro Hospital where they received free treatment.
Administration: Although authorities permitted inmates to submit complaints about their treatment without censorship and investigated credible allegations of inhumane conditions, there were no complaints of physical abuse filed during the year. On-duty guards often left their posts during the lunch hour.
Independent Monitoring: The government permits prison visits by independent human rights observers, but there were no requests for such visits during the year.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, and the government generally observed these requirements.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The National Police, local police forces, and the Sea Patrol (maritime police) maintain internal security. The National Police and Sea Patrol report to the Ministry of Justice. Local police forces report to their respective local government councils, not to the Ministry of Justice. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over security forces, and the government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse. There were no reports of impunity involving the security forces during the year.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
Under the constitution, a warrant issued by a court is required for an arrest if there is adequate time to obtain one. The courts interpret this requirement to exempt situations such as a breach of the peace or a felony in progress. The law provides detainees the right to a prompt judicial determination of the legality of their detention. Authorities generally respected this right and informed detainees promptly of the charges against them.
There was a functioning system of bail, and detainees may request bond immediately upon arrest for minor offenses. The constitution requires bail be set at a reasonable rate. Most serious offenses require the detainee to remain in jail until authorities can arrange a hearing, normally the morning after arrest. Detainees were allowed access to a lawyer of their choice and, if indigent, to one provided by the state. There were no known cases of incommunicado detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right.
The majority of trials are bench trials, in which only a judge hears the case; however, if the penalty for the alleged offense is three or more years in prison, defendants may select either a bench trial or a four-member jury trial. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and have the right to counsel. The government provides an attorney at public expense for indigent defendants facing criminal charges. By law authorities must inform defendants promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation between English and Marshallese as necessary. Defendants also have the right to a fair trial without undue delay and with adequate time to prepare a defense. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and may question witnesses. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal. These rights apply equally to all defendants.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
There is no separate judiciary in civil matters. There are administrative remedies for alleged wrongs, including human rights abuses, as well as judicial remedies within the general court system.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to provide for freedom of expression, including for the press.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Internet access and availability increased, although it remained low (approximately 10 percent of the country’s population) due to high cost and technical difficulties, particularly in areas outside the capital city, Majuro.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
U.S. nuclear testing from 1947 to 1958 displaced an estimated 14,000 individuals (original evacuees and their descendants). Some relocated to the United States, but most remained as IDPs residing in several locations across the country, including Kili Island and Ejit Islet in Majuro Atoll. IDPs did not suffer societal discrimination and received substantial government support.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The laws do not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The country has no history of receiving refugees or asylum seekers.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government, including their representatives in the Nitijela, in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The constitution also recognizes the hereditary Council of Iroij’s right to decide on issues of custom and tradition, including land tenure. The council consists of traditional clan chiefs.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The most recent national legislative elections took place in November 2015 and were generally regarded as free and fair. A special election in November 2017 on Namdrik Atoll to fill the seat of deceased Member of Parliament Mattlan Zackhras, who also served as Minister in Assistance, was free and fair.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Traditional attitudes of male dominance, women’s cultural responsibilities and traditionally passive roles, and the generally early age of pregnancies, however, made it difficult for women to obtain political qualifications or experience. President Heine is a woman.
There were few minorities in the country and none in the legislature.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and although the government generally implemented the law effectively, officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The fiscal year 2017 (October 1, 2016-September 30, 2017) audit of the national government was only the second to be completed on schedule during the past seven years; like previous audits, it listed several deficiencies and material weaknesses.
Corruption: The Attorney General’s Office reported it received 13 allegations of bribery in official matters through August. These involved theft, check forgeries, securing execution of documents by deception, embezzlement, bid rigging, abuse of public office for private gain, and misappropriation of public funds. One notable corruption case concluded in March, when the High Court found a former senator from Mili Atoll, Kejjo Bien, guilty of “civil theft” for wrongfully taking and converting $40,000 in grant money from Taiwan for his own use. (The country uses the U.S. dollar as its currency.)
Financial Disclosure: Public officials are not subject to financial disclosure laws.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including by a spouse, is a crime with a maximum penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment for first-degree sexual assault. Domestic violence is also a crime. The law seeks to stigmatize it; to ensure investigation of incidents and the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators; and to provide support for survivors. The law also requires certain professionals to report suspected domestic violence.
The police response to allegations of rape and domestic violence is intermittent, although there is a police domestic violence unit with both an investigative and community outreach role. A lack of resources and training limits the capacity of local police to respond to and assist victims. The Attorney General’s Office prosecutes rape cases brought to its attention. During the year two men in different incidents on remote outer atolls were charged criminally by the Attorney General’s office for beating girlfriends or ex-wives, while two other women successfully got court protection orders requiring violent perpetrators to stay away from victims. Prosecutions for domestic violence were sporadic, and awareness of the law was low outside the capital. A general lack of capacity and resources hindered the prosecution of rape and domestic violence cases. Court rules protect women during testimony in rape cases, primarily by shielding the victim as witness from the accused.
Various studies have suggested that sexual violence of all types is common, but frequently unreported. A May Ministry of Culture and Internal Affairs gender equality report estimated that 51 percent of women experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. The same study found that 54 percent of domestic violence victims did not report the incident because of fear of retribution or a belief that the abuse was justified. A 2017 study by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Women United Together in the Marshall Islands (WUTMI) ascribed the rate of domestic violence to patriarchal social norms that place women in a subordinate cultural role. According to the study, most citizens believed that violence against women was justified in many situations. The fact that, during the year, 50 percent of women who sought protective orders against abusive partners in court eventually withdrew the requests underscored these studies’ conclusions.
The government’s health office provided limited counseling services when spouse or child abuse was reported, but there were no government shelters for domestic violence victims. NGOs continued efforts to raise awareness of domestic violence through marches and information sessions. WUTMI, formed to advance women’s rights, conducted numerous programs to change public attitudes, such as its 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, which included a march. It also organized training as part of its annual conference. Through its Weto In Mour: Violence Against Women and Girls Support Service, cofounded with government and donor partners, WUTMI provided survivors with safe accommodations, basic necessities, and transport fares to enable them to attend legal appointments.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is a crime, defined as a petty misdemeanor.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: Women generally enjoyed the same legal rights as men. The inheritance of property and traditional rank is matrilineal on most atolls, although control of property was often delegated to male family members. Tribal chiefs, customarily the husband or eldest son of the female landowner, are the traditional authorities in the country.
Women are represented in the workforce in proportion to their share of the general population. Many women were in low-paying jobs with little prospect for advancement. There is no law on equal pay; however, equal pay was in effect for government employees.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is acquired through one’s parents. Children born within the country to foreign parents do not acquire citizenship at birth but may apply for citizenship upon turning 18. Failure to register births generally did not result in the denial of public services such as education or medical care.
Education: Although primary education is legally compulsory, the government did not strictly enforce the law. To enter public high school, students must take an admission exam, but due to space constraints, not all who passed the exam could attend public high schools.
Child Abuse: Child abuse and neglect are criminal offenses, but public awareness of children’s rights remained low. Convictions for violations are punishable by a maximum of 25 years in prison, depending on the degree of the offense. The law 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 and neglect remained common.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 years for men and 16 years for women. According to the UN Population Fund database, 26.3 percent of women ages 20-24 were married before age 18. There were no known government measures to prevent or mitigate early marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 16 years. The country’s statutory rape law, which provides penalties of up to 25 years’ imprisonment for violators, remained largely unenforced. The law criminalizes the exploitation of children, including child sex trafficking, child pornography, and other forms of sexual exploitation. The law stipulates that authorities may not punish child victims of sexual exploitation and that these victims should have access to support services.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.
There were few Jewish residents in the country. Even after many months, local officials took no action to erase anti-Semitic graffiti visible in several locations in Majuro.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The constitution states that no person may be treated in a discriminatory manner under law or by public officials, but it does not include disability in its listing of specific prohibited grounds of discrimination. Relevant law is designed to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities faced difficulties in obtaining employment and accessing health care and other state services.
There were no specific psychiatric facilities in the country or community-based supports for persons with mental disabilities, although the Ministry of Health provided short-term care at the Majuro Hospital or facilities off-island.
The NGO Marshall Islands Disabled Persons Organization worked with the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ disability officer to promote and protect the rights and interests of persons with disabilities.
The Ministry of Health addresses the health needs of persons with mental and physical disabilities. The public school system is responsible for supporting special education for children with disabilities and continued to incorporate awareness programs for students with disabilities, in particular those with hearing disabilities.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Neither the constitution nor law provides specific protection against discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons. There were no reports of societal violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity. There were no reports of official or societal discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, statelessness, or access to education or health care. The law prohibits same-sex couples or individuals involved in a same-sex relationship from adopting Marshallese children.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government interpreted this right as allowing people to form and join independent labor unions. The law neither provides for nor prohibits collective bargaining or the right to strike. The law does not specifically prohibit antiunion discrimination, nor does it require the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.
The government enforced freedom of association laws. Penalties take the form of fines and were sufficient to deter violations.
With a small number of major employers, there were few opportunities for workers to unionize. Independent trade unions did not exist, and there were no NGOs promoting the rights of workers.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced labor, and prescribes penalties of up to 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of $10,000.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. There were no reports of government enforcement, and there were no reported investigations of forced labor.
There were reports of families holding or attempting to hold extended relatives, including children, in domestic servitude, but there were no known formal allegations made or convictions for this practice. There were also reports some foreign fishermen were subjected to conditions indicative of forced labor on ships in Marshallese waters.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
There is no law or regulation setting a minimum age, hours of work, or occupational health restrictions for employment of children. The law prohibits exploitation of children younger than 18 years, including in the worst forms of child labor, child begging, and child domestic work. No information was available on government enforcement efforts regarding the worst forms of child labor.
Children typically did not work in the wage economy, but it was common for children to assist their families in fishing, agriculture, retailing, and other small-scale enterprises. This was particularly true in the subsistence economies of the more remote atolls where copra production can take children from school and reduce educational outcomes.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution states that no person may be treated in a discriminatory manner under law or by public officials. Labor laws and regulations do not specifically prohibit employment discrimination. The constitution states that the attorney general, in all cases of violations of the constitution, whether by private or public officials, has the standing to complain of the violation in judicial proceedings. The criminal code does not stipulate any specific penalty in such cases. There were no formal complaints of employment discrimination during the year to September. No law mandates equal pay for equal work; government employees receive pay equity. Under the law, citizens receive preference in hiring, and noncitizen workers are hired only to supplement the local work force when no citizens qualify for the job. The law requires that employers who hire foreign workers pay a fee used for training citizen workers. Many employers willingly paid the fee to hire technically skilled labor, which was not widely available in the country.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law establishes a minimum wage of $3.00 per hour for both government and private-sector employees. The government has not effectively enforced the law. The minimum wage does not apply to casual workers or family employees. There was no official poverty level.
Foreign employees and local trainees of private employers who invested in or established a business in the country are exempt from minimum wage requirements provided the employer receives government authorization. Most foreign workers, who constituted approximately 30 percent of the workforce (excluding agroforestry), and most of the professional and technical classes in the country earned considerably more than the minimum wage. Their earnings were estimated to average at least 50 percent higher than those of local workers.
The law provides for a standard workday of eight hours, but places no restrictions on the amount of overtime that could be worked.
No legislation provides protection for workers who file official complaints about conditions that endanger their health or safety. The law does not provide for workers to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.
The Board of Inquiry within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the authority to make recommendations to the Nitijela on working conditions, such as the minimum wage, legal working hours, overtime payments, and occupational health and safety standards for workers. There were no policy recommendations or political initiatives by the Board of Inquiry during the year, however, and the office did not conduct any health and safety inspections of workplaces. The office is empowered to do so, but it does not have dedicated inspectors to carry out inspections to enforce sufficient compliance. The law provides no protections for informal-sector workers, which generally included work on a family farm or in copra production.