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Marshall Islands - Government

The bicameral legislature consists of the Council of Iroij (12 seats; consists of tribal chiefs chosen by holders of the chieftainship among the constituent islands) and the National Parliament or Nitijela (which consists of 33 senators; members directly elected by simple majority vote to serve 4-year terms); note - the Council of Iroij advises the Presidential Cabinet and reviews legislation affecting customary law or any traditional practice).

The electoral districts correspond roughly to each atoll of the Marshall Islands. Four district centers — Majuro, Ebeye, Jaluit, and Wotje — serve as local governments with an elected council, a mayor, appointed local officials, and a local police force. Funding for the district centers comes in the form of grants from the national government and revenues raised locally.

The Cabinet is nominated by the president from among members of the Nitijela, appointed by Nitijela speaker. The president is indirectly elected by the Nitijela from among its members for a 4-year term (no term limits); election last held on 27 January 2016 (next to be held in 2020).

The government respects freedom of speech and the press. A privately owned weekly newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal, publishes in both English and the Marshallese languages. There are two radio stations (one is state-owned), both of which give voice to a range of views. Cable television broadcasts local news as well as U.S. programs.

No legal restrictions exist against the formation of political parties, and two parties currently exist. Traditionally there had been no formally organized political parties; what has existed more closely resembles factions or interest groups because they do not have party headquarters, formal platforms, or party structures; the following two "groupings" have competed in legislative balloting in recent years - Aelon Kein Ad Party [Michael KABUA] and United Democratic Party or UDP [Litokwa TOMEING].

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 Kabuas death in office, his first cousin, Imata Kabua, won a special election in 1997. The third president, Kessai Note, served two 4-year terms from 2000 to 2008. Litokwa Tomeing was elected president in January 2008 and was removed from office in a vote of no confidence in September 2009. Jurelang Zedkaia was elected president in October 2009. The Nitijela, the country’s parliament, elected Hilda C. Heine in early 2016, following free and fair multiparty elections in late 2015.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands has four court systems: The Supreme Court, the high court, the 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. The Judiciary is independent, and the rule of law is well established. The government respects the right to a fair trial. Both the national and local police honor legal civil rights protections in performing their duties.

Section 13 of the RMI Bill of Rights states: “All persons shall be free from unreasonable interference in personal choices that do not injure others and from unreasonable intrusions into their privacy.” This clause, in Section 13, is respected in practice.

The first constitutional convention commenced on June 1977 and was concluded on December 1978, with the adoption of the final draft constitution for the Marshall Islands, followed by the constitutional referendum on March 1, 1979. The country gained independence and signed a compact of free association with the United States in 1986. Since the first constitutional convention, two other conventions were held, one in 1990 and the other in 1995. On both occasions, only few amendments were made to the constitution through the constitutional convention and referendum process.

The election of Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) Representatives was held on February 21, 2017. The Con-Con will have 45 members, 33 to be elected from Nitijela electoral districts, and 12 of iroij descent representing Ralik Chain (four), and one each for Ujelang/Enewetak, Mili, Arno, Mejit, Majuro, and Airok Maloelap, and one for Aur, Wotje, Utrik, Maloelap and Ailuk combined, and one owner for Likiep. Many of the Republic's 33 MPs were competing with members of the public for seats in a February election, while 24 chiefs contested 12 seats reserved for traditional leaders.

The Con-Con can consider the proposed amendments in Bill 70 that include:

  • Direct popular election of the President and addition of the position of Vice President, and require President be natural born citizen.
  • Eliminate vote of no confidence provisions and provide for removal of the President, Vice President or Cabinet members in the same manner as a judge of the High Court.
  • Prohibit the sale of land except where the bwij (lineage) has expired.
  • Reserve six of existing 33 seats in Nitijela for women, with two from Majuro and one each from Kwajalein, Ailinglaplap, Arno and Jaluit.
  • Require the Nitijela appropriations bill to be balanced budget.
  • Add “sexual discrimination” to the Bill of Rights section on Equal Protection and Freedom from Discrimination.
  • Increase members of the Council of Iroij by one additional member from Mili.
  • Allow the Attorney General’s office to institute proceedings by a separate and independent body relating to fraud, corruption or unethical behavior by elected or high officials.
  • Establishment of an Ombudsman’s office.

There were at least 20 proposed amendments to the Constitution that have been approved by the Nitijela. The public had voted against all substantive proposed amendments in previous constitutional conventions. The Constitution of the Marshall Islands was missing specific anti-discrimination legislation. The adoption of temporary special measures in the form of electoral quotas for women in the Parliament and the inclusion of sexual orientation as grounds for non-discrimination had been proposed as amendments to the Constitution but both proposals were defeated in 2017.

Strangely, while the Con-Con began with a bang, it seemed to have ended with a whimper, given the curious absence of visible reporting on the conclusions of the convention.

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