Peering into the ‘Black Box’ of TRC Success: Exploring Local Perceptions of Reconciliation in the Solomon Islands TRC

Holly L. Guthrey and Karen Brouneus

Truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) are generally expected to achieve a somewhat abstract, overarching kind of peacebuilding success through their work in post-conflict settings. What this monolithic conception of ‘success’ specifically entails however is often unclear; the notion of success is rarely pulled apart to determine of what it is actually comprised. Scholars have suggested a range of possible goals that may be indicative of a successful TRC process, including for example, promoting victim and societal healing, establishing accountability, facilitating reconciliation, and preventing conflict recurrence (Hayner 2011; Brahm 2007; Popkin and Roht-Arriaza 1995; Ainley et al. 2015a; Hirsch et al. 2012). Albeit largely vague and difficult to measure, it is commonly expected that all of these goals should be seen to be achieved, at least to some degree, in the wake of a TRC.

In contrast to this type of all-encompassing expectation of TRC success for peacebuilding, some have suggested that success may mean merely meeting the mandates with which TRCs are tasked (Brahm 2007). However, the same problem of ambiguity concerning ‘success’ arises: TRC mandates often state they will, for example, ‘promote national peace,

H.L. Guthrey (*) • K. Brouneus

Department of Peace and Conflict Research, University of Uppsala, Uppsala, Sweden

© The Author(s) 2017

R. Jeffery (ed.), Transitional Justice in Practice, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-59695-6_4

security, unity and reconciliation’ (Liberia’s TRC), ‘v consolidate peace... promote healing and reconciliation. prevent the repetition of violations and abuse.’ (Sierra Leone’s TRC). The mandates and aims of a TRC can perhaps not be expected to be more precise—and perhaps they should not be—but for purposes of accumulated learning of the promises and pitfalls of TRC processes we need to know more precisely when they have indeed achieved some or parts of their aims, and what these are. That is, there is a risk that the ‘small’ victories of a TRC pass unseen in the midst of overarching, all-encompassing expectations and hopes, making it difficult to accumulate knowledge on what works and what does not, knowledge to build on for future TRCs.

In this chapter we argue that the components of success should be unraveled to avoid an overly vague and all-encompassing conception of what a successful TRC entails. We aim to zero in more acutely on the ‘small’ victories, as well as pitfalls, of these mechanisms with regard to reconciliation, in order to more keenly understand and delineate the dimensions of their work that are beneficial to, and those that may be inhibiting, lasting peace.

In this chapter, we focus on the goal of reconciliation, one of the most commonly mentioned goals of TRC mandates as found in an empirical study undertaken by Guthrey (2015). Reconciliation is undoubtedly complex and is often characterized by numerous competing theories relating to how it should be defined, as well as how to measure it (Brouneus 2008a). With regard to TRCs, reconciliation continues to be abstract and uncertain in terms of what it is and how one knows if it has been achieved. TRCs are often criticized for not fulfilling this goal, and we also know little about the effects of pursuing this goal in post-conflict settings. Our aim then, is to peer into the ‘black box’ of TRC success, in order to begin teasing out what dimensions of the goal of reconciliation are being fulfilled, and what aspects are struggling to be realized. To do this, we conduct a case study of the recent Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SI TRC).

This chapter will proceed by first discussing how reconciliation is conceived in the scholarly literature on post-conflict peacebuilding, as well as illustrations of how it has been emphasized in TRCs globally. A brief background of the ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands is then provided, with specific focus on the SI TRC, and the provisions within its mandate, which demonstrate how reconciliation was intended to be achieved through the TRC’s work. Along with this background, information about the role of reconciliation in the Solomon Islands will be provided, with emphasis on the cultural dimensions of this practice. Findings from an analysis of the TRC public hearing transcripts as well as focus group data from field research in the Solomon Islands are then presented, highlighting two themes that can be used to assess whether the TRC was able to achieve even ‘small’ TRC victories with regard to reconciliation. These themes are: the use of public hearings as a platform to ask for reconciliation between victims and perpetrators, and the question of whether the SI TRC was relevant enough to be used for ‘real’ reconciliation in the country. We then discuss the implications of these findings, including an examination of how the results from our study illustrate the degrees of success of the SI TRC. Lastly, we offer some conclusions that can be drawn from the study and several recommendations about how future TRCs may be better able to realize their intended goals, particularly in relation to reconciliation.

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