Background Notes: Marshall Islands

Marshall Islands Official Info

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Details of Background Notes: Marshall Islands, Marshall Islands Official Info
Details for Background Notes: Marshall Islands

Marshall Islands Official Info

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The Marshalls are comprised of 29 atolls and five major islands, which form two parallel groups--the "Ratak" (sunrise) chain and the "Ralik"(sunset) chain. Two-thirds 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 system of clans and lineages tied to land ownership.

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

Both Marshallese and English are 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 fourth grade. There is one post-secondary institution in the Marshall Islands--the College of the Marshall Islands.



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Little is clearly understood about the prehistory of the Marshall Islands. Researchers agree on little more than 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. The Spanish explorer de Saavedra landed there in 1529. They were named for English explorer John Marshall, who visited them in 1799. The Marshall Islands were claimed by Spain in 1874.

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, 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.

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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. After Amata Kabua's death in office, his first cousin, Imata Kabua, won a special election in 1997. The current president was elected in the general elections of November 1999 and took office in January 2000.

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.

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Head of State--President Kessai H. Note
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Alvin Jacklick
Ambassador to the U.S.--Banny de Brum
Ambassador to the UN--Jakeo Rilang

The Republic of the Marshall Islands maintains an embassy at 2433 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-234-5414). It has a consulate at 1888 Lusitana St., Suite 301, Honolulu, HI 96813 (tel. 808-545-7767).

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).

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Citizens of the Marshall Islands live with a relatively new democratic political system combined with a hierarchical traditional culture. The first two presidents were chiefs. Kessai Note is a commoner.

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 undue government pressure on the judiciary and the press. The United Democratic Party, running on a reform platform, won the 1999 parliamentary election, taking control of the presidency and cabinet. The new government has publicly confirmed its commitment to an independent judiciary.

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The government is the largest employer, employing 30.6% of the work force, down by 3.4% since 1988. GDP is derived mainly from payments made by the United States under the terms of the Compact of Free Association. Direct U.S. aid accounted for 60% of the Marshalls' $90 million budget.

The economy combines a small subsistence sector and a modern urban sector. In short, fishing and breadfruit, banana, taro, and pandanus cultivation constitute the subsistence sector. On the outer islands, production of copra and handicrafts income provide cash income. 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. The airfield there also serves as a second national hub for international flights.

The modern sector consists of wholesale and retail trade; restaurants; banking and insurance; construction, repair, and professional services; and copra processing. Copra cake and oil are by far the nation's largest exports. A tuna loining plant employs 300 workers, mostly women, at $1.50 per hour. Copra production, the most important single commercial activity for the past 100 years, now depends on government subsidies. 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, aquaculture, tourism development, and agriculture, are top government development priorities. The Marshall Islands sells fishing rights to other nations as a source of income. In recent years, the Marshall Islands has begun to offer ship registrations under the Marshall Islands flag. As a small nation, the Marshall Islands must import a wide variety of goods, including foodstuffs, consumer goods, machinery, and petroleum products.

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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. Since independence, the Republic of the Marshall Islands has established relations with 67 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 Taiwan.

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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 approved 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's economic provisions is 15 years (ending in 2001); renegotiations regarding these provisions began late in 1999.

A major subsidiary agreement of the compact allows the United States continued use of the U.S. 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 under a government-to-government agreement with 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. Under the terms of the compact, more than 40 U.S. Government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Postal Service, the Small Business Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency operate programs or render assistance to the Marshall Islands.

The United States and the Marshall Islands have full diplomatic relations. The Marshall Islands have expressed an interest in attracting U.S. investment.

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Ambassador--Joan M. Plaisted
Deputy Chief of Mission--Michael A. Spangler
Administrative Officer--Carolyn Pittman
Military Political Liaison--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.

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