Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Marshallese
Main religions: Christianity (mainly Protestantism)
According to the 2011 national census, the population of the Marshall Islands recorded 53,158 people. There are no significant minority groups in the Marshall Islands though there are residents from other Pacific Island states, the United States, Taiwan, the Philippines and elsewhere. Two-thirds of the population lives in the two overcrowded urban centres of Ebeye and Majuro, with the remainder scattered on more than twenty populated atolls. There has been a steady decline in the population growth rate since 1988 mainly due to emigration. There is very substantial migration to the United States where many migrants remain marginalized. Roughly one third of the Marshall Islands’ citizens live in the United States, with many living in the state of Arkansas.
Updated: May 2018
The Marshall Islands were the main nuclear-testing area for the United States (US) during the Cold War, with long-lasting environmental effects that still leaves the Bikini atoll uninhabitable and Enewetak atoll with issues of contamination. To this day, the Bikini atoll remains uninhabitable and areas of the Enewetak atoll are still hazardous. Islanders have also suffered serious health defects as a result, with high levels of thyroid cancer and stunted growth among children years after irradiation.
Another legacy of nuclear testing is the displacement of many islanders to other atolls, where they are no longer able to continue their traditional fishing culture. Islanders on the Enewetak atoll are also heavily reliant on imports for foodstuffs due to ongoing concerns of radioactive contamination of food. In 2014 the Marshall Islands took its case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against nine countries for failure of adherence to the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but in 2016 the ICJ rejected the case.
Another very pressing issue for the Marshallese is climate change. Rising sea levels mean that most of the population is at risk, given that most of the land rises barely one or two metres above sea level. In 2014, five-metre swells, ‘king tides’, inundated the major population centre of Majuro three times in a year – something that had happened rarely before. In March 2014, for example, 100 homes were destroyed and more than 900 people were placed in temporary shelters. The US Geological Survey announced that, ‘[M]any atoll islands will be flooded annually, salinizing the limited freshwater resources and thus likely forcing inhabitants to abandon their islands in decades, not centuries, as previously thought’. Climate change has also been exacerbating El Niño events, such as drought. The islands experienced one of their worst-ever droughts in 2016, leading US President Barack Obama to declare a disaster and paving the way for emergency relief.
Widespread displacement, due to nuclear testing and now climate change, has contributed to high levels of emigration, particularly to the US, as the Compact of Free Association allows islanders to live and work there. Approximately a third of Marshall Islands’ citizens live in the US, largely in Arkansas, a fact which also raises issues concerning the transmission of the Marshallese indigenous culture and its survival.
The Compact also allows the US to have military use on the Marshall Islands in exchange for development assistance. This Compact, however, expires in 2023 and the Marshall Islands are still dependent on funding from the US, which comprises of three quarters of their annual budget.
The Marshall Islands are traditionally a matriarchal society, with land passed down matrilineal descent. However, these traditions have been disrupted by changing populations and migration to urban areas, making the tracing of land rights more problematic. Furthermore, gender-based violence against women remains widespread. In a survey conducted in four atolls including Majuro and Kwjalein (Ebeye), around 80 per cent of women have reported incidences of physical violence. Measures are still needed to increase awareness and challenge widespread acceptance of violence against women.
Updated: May 2018
The Republic of the Marshall Islands consists entirely of coral atolls and reef islands and lies just north of the Equator. The islands are low-lying with many atolls only about one metre above sea level.
The first Micronesians reached the Marshall Islands about two thousand years ago. Excavations at the Laura village site on Majuro have revealed archaeological samples that date back to 30 BCE and 50 CE. The early settlements may have been influenced by early Polynesian (Lapita) culture and were certainly highly skilled navigators, using dug-out canoes to travel the long stretches between the atolls. The first European contact occurred when the archipelago was sighted by Spanish navigator Álvaro Saavedra in 1529. Contacts became more extensive during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with British and Russian expeditions to chart the region. US whalers started visiting the islands during the 1820’s, and the archipelago became a focus of American Protestant missionary activity during the 1850’s. Germany established a refuelling station on Jaluit atoll, and in a treaty with Great Britain declared the islands a German protectorate in 1886. Japan seized the islands during World War I and subsequently administered them under a League of Nations mandate. The Marshall Islands were then taken over by the United States after heavy fighting against Japanese forces during World War II.
The Marshall Islands subsequently became part of the post-war US-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. In the early years of this trust, the populations of Bikini and Enewetak were resettled so that the atolls could be used as a site for atomic bomb tests from 1946 to 1958. All in all, 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs were exploded on the islands. The explosive yield was the equivalent 1.6 Hiroshima bombs being detonated every day for 12 years. These tests irradiated the islands as well as people living on other atolls. They left a lasting legacy of environmental contamination and severe health impacts.
A compensation trust fund of US$150 million was established in 1986, to be administered by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. By the early 2000’s, the fund was depleted with many claims still pending, but the US government has refused to provide further compensation, saying that the fund was a ‘full and final’ payment. The US maintains that it is also providing support in other ways, both through more general assistance and also through a four-atolls health programme, targeting the populations of the atolls most directly affected by the nuclear testing.
The atoll of Kwajalein was later developed into a target range and subsequently a ‘star wars’ missile testing base. The US has an agreement to use the Kwajalein atoll as a missile target range until 2066, with an option to extend until 2086. In 1983 the Marshall Islands signed a Compact of Free Association with the USA and became independent in 1986, when the Compact entered into force; despite gaining independence, the country’s economy is exceptionally dependent on US aid. A second phase of the Compact was ratified in 2004, which effectively maintains this aid dependency, though much of the aid money is placed in a Trust Fund. The Compact Trust Fund was set up with the intention to replace grant funding after 2023.
Due to the displacement that occurred as a result of nuclear testing, many Marshallese have become disconnected from their indigenous traditions: for instance, they are unable to perform migratory practices involving the gathering of various cultural goods from islands that remain contaminated. Displacement has also undermined the cultural connection of Marshallese to their customary lands.
There is a unicameral political system with a 33-seat Nitijela, or legislature, and an advisory council of twelve high chiefs (Council of Iroij). Political parties are of minor significance. Politicians often campaign as independent candidates and then join a particular party after being elected. Women have limited political representation on the islands and experience significant discrimination, despite matrilineal cultural traditions in areas such as of inheritance. Though previously women were relatively well represented in the Council of Iroij and despite some recent signs of progress, including the election of Hilda Heine, the first female president in 2016, they remain underrepresented in parliament and the judicial system.
The ‘nuclear nomads’ of Bikini settled on the southern atoll of Kili and have not yet been able to return to their contaminated home island. Islanders from the four northern atolls have received compensation payments for displacement and long-term health problems. Although a US$150 million compensation fund was established as part of the Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986, the available funds had been depleted by the early 2000’s with many payments still outstanding.
The economy is exceptionally dependent on United States aid through the Compact. Copra production has declined and tuna fishing has been the basis of local production. Other attempts to develop a private sector have been unsuccessful and the islands remain largely reliant upon imports.
Updated: May 2018
Cultural Survival (US)
Enewetak, Rongelap, Utrik, Bikini Survivors (ERUB)
Enewetak-Enjebi Sustainability Leadership Organization (Elimondik)
Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI)