The Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report: Forgiving the Perpetrators, Forgetting the Victims?
On 27 April 2013, the Right Reverend Dr Terry Brown released via the internet an as yet unauthorised version of the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Final Report. The report, which had been in the hands of the Solomon Islands Government since February 2012, marked the culmination of a three-year-long reconciliation process initiated in response to the Solomon Islands’ 1998-2003 civil conflict. Frustrated at the government’s failure to publish the Commission’s findings, Brown, the editor of the report, sought to make public the truth about the Tensions and end months of speculation over the content of the report. ‘I think there’s an awful lot of rumour around,’ Brown argued in a radio interview, ‘and...rumour is an obstruction to reconciliation’ (Solomons truth and reconciliation report released 2013).
While Brown’s efforts to prevent the Solomon Islands Government from further stalling the national reconciliation process were applauded in some sectors of the community, the report precipitated a further set of controversies surrounding its form, contents, mode of distribution, and the role played by forgiveness in the Solomon Islands reconciliation
R. Jeffery (*)
School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Nathan, Australia
© The Author(s) 2017
R. Jeffery (ed.), Transitional Justice in Practice, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-59695-6_5
process.1 Unsurprisingly, questions have been raised about 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). In particular, 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).2
Perhaps more surprising, however, are the criticisms that Brown has levelled at the emphasis placed on forgiveness in the Solomon Islands reconciliation process. ‘It is not good enough,’ Brown declared in a press statement, ‘to forgive the perpetrators and forget the victims, which seems to be the approach of the Government’ (Brown 2013). In particular, Brown has been openly critical of the Government’s ‘tendency. ..to promote forgiveness rather than real recognition of some of the terrible human rights abuses that happened’ during the Tensions (Radio New Zealand 2013). In doing so, Brown has echoed critics of post-conflict forgiveness who raise doubts over the legitimacy of transposing an essentially interpersonal practice, enacted between the victim and perpetrator of a wrong, to the political realm. Sceptical of the role played by forgiveness in post-conflict processes, they question whether states and other collective entities are capable of forgiving and tap into long running debates over whether the right to forgive is the exclusive prerogative of the victim of an injustice. In doing so, critics point to the anguish often felt by the victims of human rights violations and their families when states and institutions committed to reconciliation pressure them to forgive perpetrators of serious wrongs or offer forgiveness on their behalf, sometimes in the form of amnesties (Biggar 2003: 315; Boraine 2000: 147; Villa-Vicencio 2003: 38).
This chapter examines the practice of forgiveness at the Solomon Islands TRC. Drawing on two antecedent truth commissions at which the role of forgiveness featured heavily, those of El Salvador and South Africa, it traces the evolving relationship between inter-personal and state-sanctioned forgiveness in their processes, culminating with an assessment of the case of the Solomon Islands. In doing so, it argues that like the cases of El Salvador and South Africa before it, the Solomon Islands finds itself engaged in a precarious balancing act between the often competing demands of inter-personal and societal forgiveness processes. On one hand, this chapter thus demonstrates that the idea that societal reconciliation is not possible without state-level forgiveness in the form of amnesties remains pervasive among some members of the Solomon Islands community including, unsurprisingly, many ex-combatants who hope to benefit from proposed amnesty laws. Yet, on the other hand, it also argues that unlike the TRCs that have gone before it, the Solomon Islands TRC marks a turn away from the sort of overt, state-sanctioned, institutionally led forgiveness practices that drew sustained criticism in the Salvadoran and South African cases. In particular, the Solomon Islands’ TRC has set itself apart from the South African model on which it was based by explicitly opposing amnesties for ex-combatants and for arguing that without justice, forgiveness alone is unlikely to achieve reconciliation for the Solomon Islands.