Human Rights Context
From a human rights perspective, or at least taking into account the scale of human rights violations that occurred during the 1998 to 2001 ‘ethnic tensions,’ a truth and reconciliation commission was an unusual choice for the Solomon Islands. Truth commissions have tended to be implemented after periods of systematic government repression of opposition and information, or following mass killings and systematic human rights abuses; often both. Arguably, neither of these conditions was present in the case of the Solomon Islands. An estimated 200 lives were lost over the
5-year period due to fighting, and state forces were not directly implicated in most of these killings, even though the collapse of the state system, notably the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) meant that it was impossible to tell where the state ended and militia forces began. It is also not possible to argue that the government was implicated in any serious attempts to repress dissidence or information. Rather it is more the case that the accessibility of official information is poor in this developing Pacific island nation. If anything, repression of information has occurred after the compilation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report with the Government refusing its release on the grounds that its contents are ‘sensitive’ and may incite further violence. However, this is not to say that significant human rights abuses did not occur during the period of conflict. The TRC report estimates that some 35,000 individuals were forcibly displaced from their homes causing an exodus of refugees to Honiara, Malaita, and the surrounding islands (TRC Report 2012: 357).
It is important to remember that the TRC was a very late addition to a number of earlier initiatives that could arguably be classified as ‘transitional justice’ mechanisms: notably the RAMSI-led tension trials. However, there was never any attempt to coordinate the TRC with the tension trials, apart from a caveat in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act that no information gained during the truth telling process would be admissible in court. The two were seen as entirely different entities—the trials an initiative of RAMSI, steeped in the mission’s security and state-building narrative (Jeffery 2013, 2014). The TRC on the other hand was perceived, by RAMSI personnel at least, as something ‘local,’ faith, and kastom driven that ‘should be left to Solomon Islanders’ to implement.2 Secondly, it is clear that the tension trials did not operate according to any kind of human rights mandate. Although the TRC report draws widely on international legal norms to describe criminal acts during the conflict—specifically outlining war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Geneva Conventions—the tension trials’ jurisprudence was based solely on domestic criminal law, a fact that frustrated some activists who wished to see prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity (Anonymous Interview 2013: Honiara).3 Further, the absence of a human rights focus in the trials is made evident by the fact that not a single prosecution has been made regarding incidents of rape or sexual violence during the conflict. If transitional justice is, as I have argued, defined by its strong connection with the human rights discourse, then the tension trials cannot be considered to be a transitional justice initiative—which was perhaps a missed opportunity for international support and legitimacy.