Transitional Justice

July 2003 saw the arrival of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), an intervention that took place at the request of the Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Sir Allan Kemakeza. RAMSI’s mandate was twofold. First, it was charged with ensuring the ‘safety and security of the Solomon Islands’ (What is RAMSI?). This it achieved in a relatively short period of time by removing the militias and their weapons from the streets. RAMSI’s operations policy at the time was, at least in unofficial terms, ‘to charge leading militants with something reasonably plausible to get them locked up on remand while they more carefully sought to build evidence against them’ (Braithwaite et al. 2010: 50). By Christmas 2003, more than 1300 individuals had been arrested and almost all of the major militant leaders were remanded in custody, including Harold Keke, who surrendered voluntarily after talks with the head of the international mission, Nick Warner (Braithwaite et al. 2010: 52). These actions, as Mary-Louise O’Callaghan notes, brought ‘the mira- cle...that Solomon Islanders had been praying for,’ an end to the fighting (2008: 186).

The second element of RAMSI’s mandate charged it with instituting a set of reforms and improvements to the machinery of government, economic governance, and law and justice. In accordance with its ‘unusually strong rule-of-law agenda’ (Braithwaite et al. 2010: 3), RAMSI set about restoring the Solomon Islands ‘“barely functioning” criminal justice system’ (Fullilove 2006: 33). The result was the establishment of the first element of the Solomon Islands’ formal transitional justice process, the ‘Tension Trials,’ during which several high-profile militia leaders, i ncluding Harold Keke, were found guilty of serious charges including murder, wrongful confinement, and arson (Regina v. Keke 2005; Regina v. Roddy Seko 2005). As discussed by Claire Cronin in Chapter 2, however, despite pressure from international actors, the Tension Trials did not refer to international human rights or humanitarian law but took place with reference to Solomon Islands domestic law. That is, as Cronin argues, the Trials resisted the expectation that they would assume a human rights mandate, preferring instead to rely on the Solomon Islands Penal Code.

At the same time, however, the Tension Trials upheld international expectations that individuals would be held responsible for their crimes. That is, although the crimes were not posed as violations of human rights but as violations of domestic law, in all but a very small number of cases, the amnesties included in the TPA and reiterated in the SIG Amnesty Acts of 2000 and 2001 were overturned. This, as Jeffery notes in Chapter 5, has proven rather controversial.2

More prominent than the Tension Trials, however, was the establishment of the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although the possibility of a TRC had been discussed as early as the 2000 peace talks, for several years the idea was subsumed by other more pressing issues on the post-conflict policymaking agenda. In the end, the impetus for the TRC came from the Solomon Islands Christian Association (SICA), which charged its Peace Committee with researching the best way to ‘build national unity’ and gauging ‘community perceptions of a TRC’ (Vella 2014b: 5). It recommended a TRC modeled on the South African TRC, although, it was not until a change of government in 2006 that it became a prominent feature of the policymaking agenda. Even then, despite the considerable amount of political wrangling over whether the TRC should go ahead that had taken place during the preceding years, there was little discussion of how it would operate (Vella 2014b: 5). SICA’s proposal was eventually accepted by Cabinet, and the TRC Bill was passed by Parliament on 28 August 2008. As Louise Vella writes, however, although it was ‘initiated locally and implemented through an act of parliament...the transitional justice discourse from which the idea of a TRC emerged was foreign to the country’ and was largely funded by international donors, including the European Union, the United Nations Development Program, and the aid programs of Australia and New Zealand (2014a: 6). As Cronin writes in Chapter 2 and Vella notes in Chapter 6, the mismatch between international normative expectations and the local context that resulted became a source of considerable tension as the TRC began its operations.

The place of international normative expectations is also readily apparent in the mandate of the TRC as articulated in the Truth and Reconciliation Bill (2008). In accordance with the TRC Act, the Solomon Islands TRC was a hybrid commission, consisting of five members, three Solomon Islanders and two internationals (II.3 (3)). Its mandate was threefold. First, it was charged with investigating and reporting on ‘the causes, nature and extent of the violations and abuses’ which took place between 1 January 1998 and 23 July 2003 (III.5 (2)(a)). In doing so, it conceived those abuses as including ‘instances of gross violation of human right and the commission of heinous crimes against human rights or international humanitarian laws and standards’ (Preamble). That is, it defined the injustices that took place during the Tensions in terms of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Second, the TRC was to provide ‘opportunities for affected parties. to tell their story’ (‘Mandate of the Commission’). These opportunities included the establishment of ‘a forum in which both the victims and the perpetrators of human rights violations could share their experiences so as to get a clearer understanding of the past in order to facilitate healing and true reconciliation within the communities’ (TRC Act 2008: Preamble). As such, the TRC was formed with explicit reference to the two dominant underlying assumptions used to justify the establishment of truth commissions: the notions that truth brings individual healing and that it contributes to national reconciliation. Third, and finally, it was also asked to recommend ‘policy options or measures that may prevent future repetition of similar events’ (‘Mandate of the Commission’).

To these ends, the TRC staff collected 2362 individual statements from victims, perpetrators, and witnesses. Although the TRC’s mandate dictated that 50 % of statements should be taken from women, in the end statements from women amounted to 879, or 37 % of all statements (TRC Report 2012: 1210). As Louise Vella discusses in Chapter 6, several local factors, including particular cultural expectations contributed to this shortcoming. In addition, the TRC held 11 public hearings, grouped by geographical region or by theme at which both victims and perpetrators were able to provide individual testimonies. Thematic hearings addressed the experiences of women, youth, ex-combatants, and national leaders (TRC Report 2012: 1212). In total 102 closed hearings were conducted with former police officers, ex-combatants, politicians, vigilantes, and prison inmates (TRC Report 2012: 1213). Together with independent research conducted by the Commissioners and their staff, these statements and testimonies formed the basis of the TRC’s Final Report.

On 15 January 2012, the mandate of the Solomon Islands TRC expired. The very next month the Commission presented its five-volume report to Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo. Although Sect. 17 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act (2008) requires the ‘Prime minister on receiving the report of the Commission...[to] cause it to be laid before Parliament and the report to be made available to the public,’ Lilo delayed the tabling of the report and its public release. It was not until the final session before the close of Parliament in August 2015, immediately prior to the November 2015 parliamentary elections that the Report was finally tabled. Even then, however, it received little attention, either in the media or during the election campaign. And although the TRC Report returned to the national policy agenda under the leadership of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in late 2014 and 2015, presenting it to Parliament does not appear to be high on his list of priorities (Atkin 2015). This, as Nicole Dicker argues in Chapter 8, gives rise to serious questions about the implementation of the recommendations the TRC was charged with formulating.

Frustrated by the delay, in April 2013, the editor of the report, Bishop Terry Brown, released a copy of the report to SICA as well as a number of international media outlets and researchers. Shortly after, a copy of the report became widely available on the internet. This action was met with a variety of responses. Citing Sect. 17 of the TRC Act, the Chairman of the TRC, Father Samuel Ata, argued that Brown’s actions were illegal as any decision to release the report was the sole prerogative of the Solomon Islands’ Government (Island Business 2013). Others have raised concerns over the wisdom of the Commission’s decision to ‘name names’ (Radio Australia 2013), the accessibility of the report which, running to 1389 pages is not conducive to easy public consumption, and the process by which the Commission’s findings were released (Solomon Star 2013). With little resolution in sight, the TRC Report, its findings and recommendations remain in a state of limbo.

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