Failure to Launch

Given that other countries, including Uganda, for example, have begun to officially consider the inclusion of customary practices of reconciliation as a tool to bring about social healing, and because of the Solomon Islands’ deep respect for custom and their historic use of these kinds of traditional practices, I assumed that the Solomon Islands would therefore be likely to have carried the use of these kinds of practices forward in an official, state-sponsored way into the post-conflict period, and to use them as an official response in attempting to come to terms with the Tensions. I assumed wrongly, as it turned out, even though I was repeatedly assured that ‘kastom always features’ (Kenilorea interview 2014). Indeed, kastom is used between individuals and their families, but outside of the regulatory purview of the state—although the SIG’s increasing use of official solovisus as a way to redress the Tensions is a state-sponsored use of kastom. And the Solomon Islands Government is meaningless to almost all Solomon Islanders; their family, village, clan, and so on are much more significant.

However, the people I spoke with expressed several reasons for the nation’s failure to utilize customary practices of acknowledgment and justice in the post-conflict reconstruction. Here, I consider five different reasons that were expressed as reasons why kastom was not explicitly taken up at a formal level by the state to assist in the social rebuilding that was needed after the Tensions.

The first of these was that these practices had already been carried out, and many cited the argument outlined by Fraenkel, above, that the government had previously corrupted these processes, but that since they had already been carried out, no more could be done in this vein. Others felt that the ‘militants had hijacked customary modes of reconciliation and forced them on people’ (Cooper Wale interview 2014). Another said, ‘if kastom is abused, it is not valuable’ but then went on to express the view that ‘people in this country have moved into their own processes’ (Waena interview 2014).

Others surmised that customary mechanisms of justice and acknowledgment had not been applied at the state level because they simply did not apply in this instance. One person told me, for example, that ‘kastom applies in the village only.’ Many others argued that the differences between patrilineal and matrilineal systems on Guadalcanal and Malaita, for example, from where many of the Tensions problems originated, make it very complicated to use such a system between groups (Muria interview 2014; Smith interview 2014; Pollard interview 2014)—even though, as Fraenkel lays out, these kinds of differences have, in fact, been overcome organically across the country at different times (Fraenkel 2004: 108-111).

Still others argued that the legal framework does not allow customary justice to be utilized, and for that reason, the use of customary justice at a state level had not been pursued. I heard the argument that ‘the modern police are not equipped to enforce customary law’ (Sikua interview 2014). And I also heard the argument that ‘customary laws sometimes contradict introduced laws’ (Saeni interview 2014)—although, as laid out above, the Constitution is clear that customary law has supremacy within the Solomon Islands as long as it does not contradict the Constitution or Parliamentary legislation.

Another argument frequently advanced was that customary mechanisms are insufficient to cover the scale and scope of conflict seen during the Tension. As one person expressed to me, ‘kastom does not get to the root of the problem’ (Pollard interview 2014). Another said, ‘kastom does not conclude disputes like this. It can hold the fort for a moment, but that’s all’ (Palmer interview 2014). I also heard that the local systems are simply too weak to support the kind of justice that was needed after the Tensions (Anonymous interview 2014).

Finally, I was often simply told that ‘there really wasn’t anyone openly advocating for kastom’ (Pollard interview 2014). Instead, a small but influential group, the Solomon Islands Christian Association, through its Peace Office, began to advocate for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after the South African TRC, as early as 2000 (Fangalasu interview 2014; Foukona interview 2014; Takila interview 2014). They carried out consultations nationally, and began to lobby Parliament to establish it. Several years later, the government did just that. The former Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of National Unity, Reconciliation and Peace shared with me that ‘we came in trying to facilitate those kastom things, and tried to map them onto the TRC process. But in the end, people went ahead to do those things independently. [And besides] truth, reconciliation, forgiveness, those things are really important to us, so they were captured in the TRC’s legal framework’ (Kere interview 2014).

It seems that although kastom is pervasive throughout the Solomon Islands, ‘many reconciliations actually happen privately’ (Tagini interview 2014) or ‘at the family level’ (Evans interview 2014). Leaving customary practices to the private sphere, as has traditionally been the case, may have been the easiest route for the SIG to take. But in extraordinary circumstances, governments elsewhere have turned to traditional practices—or new practices cloaked in traditional understandings, as with the gacaca courts in Rwanda (Macdonald 2015)—to give the social rebuilding process needed legitimacy. This was not the case in Solomon Islands, even though leaders like Joy Kere saw a clear need for them. The perceived perversion of kastom and a lack of foresight into the need for reconciliation blocked the use of it. And today Solomon Islands is poised to experience recurring outbreaks of violence as a result (Droogan & Waldek 2015).

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