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 parliamentary elections in late 2015.
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 report to their respective local government councils. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over national police, local police, and maritime police.
Significant human rights issues included corruption and trafficking in persons.
The government did not initiate or conclude investigations or prosecutions of officials who committed human rights abuses.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
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.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: In August, after confirming outbreaks of dengue fever in Majuro and Ebeye, the government temporarily restricted movement from those locations to the outer islands to prevent the spread of the disease.
U.S. nuclear testing from 1946 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.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The laws do not provide for the granting of 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 12 traditional clan chiefs.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The most recent national legislative elections took place on November 18 and were generally regarded as free and fair, although a lawsuit was filed in one electoral district alleging vote-buying and fraud. In September the Supreme Court ruled that, although a 2016 law banning postal ballots unconstitutionally disenfranchised overseas voters, the government would have insufficient time to institute a new system before the November elections, and thus delayed implementation of the order.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or minorities in the political process, and 9 percent of members of the legislature, including the president, were women. Traditional attitudes of male dominance, women’s cultural responsibilities and traditionally passive roles, and the generally early age of pregnancies, however, created hurdles for women to obtain political qualifications or experience.
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 2018 (October 1, 2017-September 30, 2018) audit of the national government listed several deficiencies and material weaknesses in fighting corruption.
Corruption: The Attorney General’s Office did not pursue any cases, and there were no indictments or notable corruption cases during the year, but credible evidence suggested problems with government officials colluding in goods being smuggled into the country.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials are not subject to financial disclosure laws.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups generally 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. Complainants can file for either a temporary or a permanent protective order, which requires that the alleged perpetrator keep a distance of 150 feet from the complainant. Temporary protective orders have a duration of 28 days. Permanent protective orders remain in effect until the complaint is withdrawn. The law also requires all citizens 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. 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, but human rights advocates reported hesitancy among victims to report these crimes to the police despite awareness-raising efforts. The only reported complaint of domestic violence during the year was later dropped by the accuser.
Various studies have suggested sexual violence of all types is common, but frequently unreported. A 2018 Ministry of Culture and Internal Affairs gender equality report estimated 51 percent of women experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. The same study found 54 percent of domestic violence victims did not report the incident because of fear of retribution or a belief the abuse was justified. A 2017 study by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Women United Together in the Marshall Islands (WUTMI) ascribed the high rate of domestic violence to patriarchal social norms that place women in a subordinate cultural role. According to the study, most citizens believed violence against women was justified in many situations. All 20 women who sought protective orders against abusive partners in court during the year eventually withdrew the requests.
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, partnered with government and other donors for its Weto in Mour: Violence Against Women and Girls Support Service, which 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 unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that makes a person feel offended, humiliated, or intimidated. The law is generally not well enforced.
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 beginning at age five, the government did not strictly enforce the law. The law does not specify an age at which students may drop out of school. 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 for making such a report. Child abuse and neglect remained common.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18 years for both men and women. Marriage under 18 requires parental consent. 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: Sexual relations are illegal for boys under the age of 15 and for girls under the age of 16. 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 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/reported-cases.html.
There were few Jewish residents in the country, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with Disabilities
The constitution states 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.
There were no reports of violence against persons with 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 persons 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 which are sufficient to deter violations.
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 https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
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, including in the worst forms of child labor, child begging, and child domestic work. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. 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 them 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 may 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. 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 which is not above the poverty line. The government has not effectively enforced the law. The minimum wage does not apply to casual workers or family employees.
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.
Occupational health and safety standards are generally appropriate. 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 board did not conduct any health and safety inspections of workplaces. The board 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.