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Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of Marshall Islands' governance

By Howard Hills

It comes as no surprise that many Americans and other “interested observers” agree with Jack Niedenthal’s commentary in the Pacific Island Times, suggesting the Marshall Islands should consider reconstructing its self-government model in one way or the other. Observers can and do make similar suggestions about Palau, FSM, and for that matter, the U.S. government.  

In the case of the good old USA, we might start with an amendment requiring disciplines to limit national debt for which the current generation benefitting from debt spending should be responsible.  In 1787, Madison sent the Constitution to Jefferson in Paris, who wrote back and recommended the Bill of Rights, term limits on the presidency and a balanced budget amendment.  


The Bill of Rights was added before ratification, we caught up with Jefferson on presidential terms limits in 1951, but we didn’t listen to Jefferson on abuse of credit. As a result, the U.S. is currently $38 trillion in debt. The federal government shamelessly manipulates the markets and cooks the books to sustain the credibility of pledged full faith and credit, for debt we have no plan or even sense of responsibility to repay.


But the issue of whether the Marshall Islands cabinet should be composed of ministers appointed from elected members of the parliament is not unique to the Marshall Islands.  Indeed, the pros and cons of parliamentary models in which membership in parliament and service as a minister are “fused” or “segregated” are analyzed by in-depth studies including one conducted by the Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance.



So, the Marshall Islands did not invent the problem compellingly elucidated by Jack Niedenthal, and it is not strictly speaking a problem related only to parliamentary governance models, since it could arise under any legislatively controlled presidential model. Still, Niedenthal writes thoughtfully on the Marshall Islands' political culture, having made a life for himself and his family in the Pacific island nation, so his views should be valued insight.  


If the pool of political appointees in the Marshall Islands government is enlarged so the Marshallese leaders can determine who they regard as the “best” in the nation and that reform is embraced and approved, then it might contribute to change that enhances self-government. But those parliament members who elect the president and become ministers, as well as those who are hoping to serve as president or minister in the future, perhaps can not be expected to initiate the end of the current regime in a political vacuum.  


Certainly, local commentators or outsiders alone cannot provide an incentive for the Marshall Islands to change how it governs. Members of the national legislature, or Nitijela, would need to ride the tide of a populist movement, so that all the accomplished Marshallese citizens who excel in public service, U.S. military, education or business and who perhaps experienced the ups and downs of life in America, can be eligible to be appointed ministers.  


That, however, might be only a part of the solution for strengthening the rule of law and democracy in the Marshall Islands, which is facing issues that are not so quotidian as how ministers are appointed.  


In addition to focusing on whether the parliamentary or presidential model should have been developed with Professor Tribe’s thumb on the scale, there is a more fundamental question.  


Should the Nitijela exercise the power to declare and clarify principles for implementing the provisions in the Marshall Islands Constitution, which gave great if not supreme power to traditional rulers under customary law?

Specifically, Article X of the Constitution allows the Nitijela to declare traditional law in order to codify it. But in the absence of such declared traditional law, the Nitijela is constrained to act consistent with traditional law as defined and asserted by traditional leaders.  


That model is different only in degrees from some monarchial parliamentary governance models. The strength of the Marshall Islands model is that the king has traditional duties to the people, just as the people have traditional duties to the king. But where to strike the balance between the duties of the people to the king and the duties of the king to the people adds even more to the complexity of good constitutional government in the Marshall Islands than how the ministers are appointed.


Over the last decade, the Marshallese government has been an overall success in implementing its constitutional process, in many cases better than the U.S. has done. While the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau constitutions recognize the role of traditions, customs and the rights and powers of traditional rule under customary law, in the Marshall Islands' mediation between traditional rule and political rule has produced many good outcomes, some others perhaps teach lessons to be learned.  



I would not presume to suggest if or how these issues should or could be addressed. But I think it does a service for Americans and the Marshallese involved in our bilateral affairs and related internal affairs to be raising governance process and enhancement questions, just as we do every day in regards to U.S. internal affairs affecting our bilateral partnership.  


If anything, we should be doing more rather than less to strengthen cooperation in law enforcement, economic development, non-immigrant migration, political warfare and security affairs, as well as rule of law capacity building in both our nations.


Howard Hills was counsel for COFA negotiations in Executive Office of the President (1982-1986); counsel for Interagency Affairs, Office of Freely Associated State Affairs, U.S. Department of State (1986-1989); senior advisor to the assistant secretary of the Interior for Insular and International Affairs and special presidential envoy for COFA negotiations (2020-2023).  Opinions expressed are those of the author and are not attributable to any other person or organization.  All information sourced in public record communications 2020-2023.

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