Subjectivities of Suffering: Human Rights in the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Claire Cronin


Truth commissions, like other methods of transitional justice, are grounded in internationally accepted normative assumptions about the nature of human suffering and injustice. Truth (and reconciliation) commissions, often referred to as TRCs, are established as a means of addressing mass atrocities defined as crimes under international human rights, humanitarian, and criminal law. Despite their frequent claims to provide locally nuanced, restorative alternatives to international or domestic criminal trials (Tutu 1999; Shaw 2010), they remain underpinned by the same legalistic notions of human suffering as more punitive justice methods and derive their purpose and legitimacy from the efforts they make to provide forms of redress in the aftermath of violent crimes defined under international law. Amongst their key goals, TRCs are routinely tasked with analysing patterns of human rights violations and providing an overarching historical narrative about a given period of violence in a nation’s recent past. This narrative limitation (marked by a clear beginning and end point to the ‘story’ of a conflict or period of political oppression) necessitates a view

C. Cronin (*)

Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

© The Author(s) 2017

R. Jeffery (ed.), Transitional Justice in Practice, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-59695-6_2

of suffering that is extraordinary, time-bound and overt (as opposed to engaged with the subtle nuances of everyday structural injustices which often create the context for acts of physical violence), and outside of the daily realms of ordinary lived human experience—this is, after all, one of the reasons the period in question is deemed worthy of narrative attention.

At the same time, however, TRCs are viewed as a means of enabling individuals affected by violence to tell stories of their suffering and to seek truths pertaining to the whereabouts and treatment of their deceased friends and relatives. Although a final TRC report aims to provide a metanarrative of a given period of violence, data gathering is reliant on individual testimonies, and the process of collating such stories is intensely personal, intimate, often traumatic for those involved, and highly embedded in cultural norms regarding the limits of acceptability in defining and talking about suffering.

Individuals’ testimonies, imbued with personal subjectivity regarding the truth of injustices committed, and the nature of the suffering they experienced or inflicted upon others, are the building blocks of a TRC report’s historical narrative. Yet, herein lies a fundamental point of tension: rather than defining their accounts of violence in international legal terms, individuals who testify before TRCs tend to conceive of their experiences in personal, local, and culturally nuanced terms. The result is that many TRC reports conceive of the suffering associated with periods of conflict, and the subjectivities that accompany these conceptualisations, in ways that are profoundly at odds with how survivors understand their own experiences.

With this in mind, this chapter examines some of the frictions that may arise when a project grounded in international justice norms is implemented in a given post-conflict environment, drawing on the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the Solomon Islands. Setting the scene, the chapter begins broadly, examining the relationship between the interrelated ‘fields’ of human rights and transitional justice, interrogating their shared historical origins to ascertain why they are so conceptually intertwined, and how possible it might be to disentangle the two in order to create a transitional project truly aligned to local subjectivities of suffering. In particular, I pay attention to the phenomena of truth commissions and how their emergence in the latter half of the twentieth century attempted in some way to begin this unravelling process, wrestling human rights from a strictly legal codification to resonate more strongly with philosophical and theological conceptions of human suffering.

The second section examines the human rights approach adopted by the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In doing so, it provides a pertinent illustration of the ways in which a ‘universalist’ human rights oriented approach to suffering can come into tension with local subjectivities. Drawing on Sally Engle Merry’s (2006) notion of layered subjectivities and ‘vernacularization,’ it examines the fractures that emerged as a result of these often inconsistent understandings of suffering and injustice.

Drawing on my experience as a human rights advocate in Melanesia and my 16 months of ethnographic research conducted in the Solomon Islands, I argue that there was considerable variability between the discourses and understandings of human suffering used to promote the idea of a truth commission to the Solomon Islands public—both prior to and during the TRC’s implementation and within the final report itself. Whereas the TRC was marketed to Solomon Islanders on the basis of its relevance to local customary and Christian morality, the report almost exclusively draws on international legal discourses. This chapter thus concludes that the Solomon Islands TRC was chameleon-like in its attempts to be relevant to multiple audiences, never fully managing to come to terms with, or rectify such internal inconsistencies. These findings have wider implications for anthropological understandings of truth commissions and transitional justice projects as they are implemented in specific post-conflict environments.

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