Republic of the Marshall Islands

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Republic of the Marshall Islands

Type of Government

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is governed as a democratic republic in free association with the United States. Its government combines elements of the presidential and parliamentary systems of governance. The president serves as both head of state and head of the government. The unicameral (single-chamber) Nitijela carries out legislative functions. The Council of Chiefs advises the legislature on matters of customary law and land tenure.


The Republic of the Marshall Islands is located in the central Pacific Ocean among the island nations of Micronesia. The nation comprises twenty-nine low-lying coral atolls (each made up of many islets) and five islands scattered over 180,000 square miles. The islands and atolls form two parallel groupings: the Ratak, or “Sunrise,” chain and the Ralik, or “Sunset,” chain. More than two-thirds of the population resides on Ebeye Island and Majuro Atoll, where the nation’s capital is located.

Historians and archeologists know little about the early history of the Marshall Islands. It is speculated that the first settlers arrived there from Micronesia two thousand to three thousand years ago and established a hunter-gatherer society. Eventually, a culture based on matrilineal clans (groups of families sharing a common maternal ancestor) took hold on the islands.

In 1529 the Spanish explorer Álvaro Saavedra y Cerón was the first European to sight the islands, but they would remain uncolonized for more than two hundred years. In 1788 English captain John Marshall visited the region during his Pacific voyages with Thomas Gilbert, naming the islands after himself. However, the islands were not fully charted until the early nineteenth century, when navigators Adam Johann von Krusenstern (1770–1846) and Otto von Kotzebue (1787–1846) headed Russian expeditions to the region. Throughout the nineteenth century the islands were frequented by American whaling ships and Protestant missionaries seeking to convert the natives to Christianity.

Although Spain was technically able to claim all of Micronesia according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, negotiated with Portugal in 1494, it had left the Marshall Islands undisturbed for nearly three centuries. In the late nineteenth century Germany also began to lay claim to the islands, signing an agreement with local chiefs to build a coaling station on Jaluit Atoll. In 1885 Spain agreed to cede control of the Marshall Islands to Germany in exchange for hefty compensation. Germany made the islands a protectorate in 1886. The German colonial administration focused on ensuring trade flows, while the indigenous chiefs handled local matters. In 1914 the islands were ceded to Japan, which received a mandate from the League of Nations to govern them following World War I.

During World War II the United States occupied several atolls in the Marshall Islands, and the region saw intense combat between the Allied and Japanese forces. At the end of the war the United States assumed control of the islands as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands created by the United Nations. (The trust also included the Northern Mariana Islands and the Caroline Islands.) Under U.S. administration, the Marshall Islands’ Bikini and Enewetak atolls became official nuclear testing grounds.

In 1978 the Marshall Islanders separated from the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and a constitution was approved the following year. A year later the United States recognized the constitution and government of the Marshall Islands, and the two nations negotiated the Compact of Free Association to outline their future relationship. The agreement, which became effective in 1986, granted the Marshall Islands independence while assigning responsibility for the islands’ external defense to the United States. In addition, the United States agreed to pay the republic for the continued use of a military installation on Kwajalen Atoll, compensate the islands for past nuclear testing, and provide other financial subsidies. In 2003 the compact was renegotiated for an additional twenty years.

Government Structure

The Republic of the Marshall Islands’ democratic government combines elements of the presidential and parliamentary systems of governance. The structure and functions of government are outlined in the nation’s constitution, which was adopted in 1979, and in the Compact of Free Association with the United States, which became effective in 1986 (an amended compact took effect in 2004).

The Marshall Islands has a unicameral legislature called the Nitijela. This body is made up of thirty-three senators who are elected by popular vote. Nineteen members are chosen from single-seat electoral districts, while the remaining fourteen members are elected from five multi-seat districts. All members serve concurrent four-year terms. In addition, a twelve-member Council of Chiefs advises the Nitijela on matters of customary law and land tenure; this body may also request the reconsideration of a bill in the legislature.

The president serves as both the head of state and the head of government in the Marshall Islands. The president is elected to a four-year term from among the members of the Nitijela. In turn, the president appoints a cabinet of six to ten advisers from among the members of the legislature. Executive authority is vested in the president and the cabinet members, who recommend legislative proposals to the Nitijela and control the flow of legislation. The legislature has the authority to remove the president by passing a motion of no confidence. In this case, the legislature has fourteen days to elect a new president; if a no-confidence vote is carried twice and no new president is elected, the Nitijela is dissolved and new elections are held.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands has an independent judiciary that comprises the Supreme Court, High Court, and district or community courts. Traditional rights courts exist to deal with matters related to land tenure, custom, and traditional practices. At the local level, the Marshall Islands are divided into thirty-three municipal governments.

Political Parties and Factions

There are no organized political parties in the Republic of the Marshall Islands; rather, candidates align themselves in informal factions and interest groups centered on particular issues. As of 2007, all members of the legislature were listed as independents. Two informal political parties have existed since the 1990s: the Aelon Kein Ad Party and the United Democratic Party, both of which have appeared on the ballot in elections.

Major Events

Since its independence in 1986, an issue of great concern to the Marshall Islands has been adequately addressing past nuclear testing in the area by the United States. Following World War II, the United States had relocated residents of the Marshall Islands’ Bikini and Enewetak atolls and began using the area as an official testing ground for nuclear bombs. Between 1946 and 1958 the United States tested sixty-seven nuclear weapons on the atolls and in the surrounding waters, including the first hydrogen bomb dropped by a U.S. airplane. After more than a decade of nuclear testing, the atolls suffered from severe radioactive contamination. During the 1960s the U.S. government attempted to clean up the environmental damage on Bikini Atoll and resettle its residents, but the area was found to be uninhabitable. Enewetak Atoll was declared decontaminated in 1980 and its residents were permitted to return, but after crops showed unsafe levels of contamination, residents were again removed.

The Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Marshall Islands, adopted in 1986 and renegotiated in 2003, provides for the settlement of claims related to nuclear testing conducted from 1946 through 1958. The islands, however, continue to petition the U.S. government for increased compensation.

Twenty-First Century

Like many other South Pacific nations, one of the Marshall Islands’ most pressing challenges in the twenty-first century is the environment. Because much of the land is very low-lying, the islands are vulnerable to soil erosion and saltwater intrusion caused by rising sea levels. Environmental groups caution that global climate change could make the islands uninhabitable in the not-too-distant future. In 2007 President Kessai H. Note (1950–) stated that global climate change represents the single greatest threat to life in the Marshall Islands.

Bryan, E. H. Life in the Marshall Islands. Honolulu: Pacific Scientific Information Center, 1972.

Dibblin, Jane. Day of Two Suns: U.S. Nuclear Testing and the Pacific Islanders. New York: New Amsterdam, 1990.

U.S. Department of State. “Background Note: Marshall Islands.” (accessed June 27, 2007).