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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, April 24) — Unable to get a parliamentary majority to move forward with plans to revamp the country’s constitution, the Marshall Islands ruling United Democratic Party will put the proposal for a constitutional convention to the people in a national referendum.

The government wants to make dramatic changes to the current Westminster-style government that has been in place in the Marshall Islands for 27 years. This includes direct election of the country’s president, who is now elected by parliament, and clear separation of the executive branch of government from the legislature. Other amendments include tightening up or eliminating altogether provisions that allow for foreigners to become citizens — a move that is largely a response to increasing control of the business sector by Chinese nationals who either purchased passports in the 1990s, when the government was selling citizenships, or who now qualify for citizenship by virtue of marriage.

The constitution requires the parliament to consider a constitutional convention (con-con) every 10 years, but also says that for the parliament to call a con-con, it must have the support of at least two-thirds of the 33 members of parliament.

But with the 13-member opposition firmly opposed to holding a con-con this year, the parliament could not muster the needed votes to authorize a convention, despite repeated UDP efforts over the past year. The last convention was held in 1994.

"It’s a waste of money," opposition Sen. Justin deBrum said. He and other opposition leaders say while they don’t object to a con-con ultimately being held, they believe that the Marshall Islands needs to resolve other key problems first, including resolution of an impasse with Kwajalein landowners over long-term United States use of the missile testing range at Kwajalein and problems with U.S.-provided nuclear test compensation and health care.

The referendum will ask voters whether or not they want a con-con to consider a list of 22 constitutional amendments.

The vote is expected to happen this year, but no dates have yet been set, Carl Alik, the government’s chief electoral officer, said Friday.

The Nitijela included 22 proposals that, if voters agree, will be put to a convention for review.

In addition to the presidential voting system and citizenship issues, these include:

• Elimination of four bill of rights provisions on search and seizure to make it easier for police to gather evidence in criminal investigations. "We must closely scrutinize our criminal justice system and decide whether we desire that it work to the benefit of the criminal elements or whether it is our intention to see that justice is done," said a report from the parliament on this proposed change.

• Deletion of several sections of the due process and fair trial provisions and change for others, including making jury trials available only in cases where the minimum jail term is 10 years or more. Jury trials are now allowed for cases with three-year jail term penalties.

• Abolishment of the Public Service Commission, and establishment of a Personnel Management Division under the chief secretary to handle government employment and personnel.

• Clarification of land ownership, including provisions to prohibit the sale of customarily owned land except in instances where traditional clan ownership has expired, and to restrict sale of land to citizens only.

April 24, 2006

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