The Forgiveness Bill
In many ways, the controversy that emerged over the issue of amnesty at the TRC was foreshadowed much earlier. Even before the TRC had begun its hearings, the Solomon Islands Minister for National Unity, Reconciliation and Peace, Sam Iduri, proposed the introduction of a ‘Forgiveness Bill’ to provide amnesty for perpetrators giving evidence before the TRC (Solomon Star 2009). In part, this was proposed to allay fears that testimonies presented before the TRC, though inadmissible in court, would lead to new criminal investigations and trials. As such, the Forgiveness Bill proposed to instate something akin to South Africa’s truth for amnesty provision. By framing the proposed amnesty provision as a ‘Forgiveness Bill,’ supporters explicitly conceived amnesty as the state expression of forgiveness, as had been the case in El Salvador and South Africa. However, as critics of the bill highlighted, with this came the same set of problems associated with transposing interpersonal forgiveness to the political realm that marred the reconciliation processes in South Africa and El Salvador. In particular, the Chairman of Transparency International, Australia, Bob Pollard, argued that ‘forgiveness is something that can only be given by the victim to the offender’ and, as such, there is no way ‘to legislate for forgiveness.’ In addition, he suggested that offering amnesties to the perpetrators of serious crimes ‘could actually offend those who suffered during the civil war’ and, in doing so, argued that the Forgiveness Bill may even ‘set the country’s healing process back’ (Solomon Times 2009).
In contrast to Pollard, however, the Solomon Islands Western Province Premier, George Solingo Lilo argued that ‘there will be no nation building and reconciliation and our people will forever remain blemished if we fail to forgive each other and forget the past.’ Although he did not explicitly mention the proposed Forgiveness Bill, he alluded to the question of granting amnesties to the perpetrators of serious crimes when he acknowledged the difficulty of the task faced by the TRC in attempting to ‘reconcile discordant elements and make them cling together in one society.’ Lilo argued that the members of the TRC ‘may have to put themselves in the position of those perpetrators of these gross human rights violations, who genuinely demonstrates remorse and regret and were willing to ask for forgiveness and help our society move forward’ (Solomon star 2010). With this, Lilo echoed the sentiment found so offensive to Tojeira, that post-conflict reconciliation processes ought to focus on the needs of living perpetrators rather than dead victims and their surviving relatives.
The proposed Forgiveness Bill also provoked controversy at the TRC. While several victims criticised the proposed bill, arguing that it would not help the reconciliation process (TRC Report 2012: 981 & 991), many ex-combatants from both Guadalcanal and Malaita spoke in favour of its passage and implementation. In his testimony, Joseph Sangu recommended:
The Solomon Islands Government should and [sic] enact the Forgiveness Bill as a means to fast track the healing process that our country is now embarking on. This will also enable more people to come forward and assist in peace and reconciliation and healing processes. A lot of people who were caught up and were labelled by the law as perpetrators or ex-militants—a lot of them want to come forward, but not until this piece of legislation; there must be a Forgiveness Bill if this country is to go forward. (TRC Report 2012: 1097)
More succinctly, Daniel Tai Faafunua recommended that ‘through the report of the TRC...A Forgiveness bill should be in place and all ethnic- related crimes be forgiven and forgotten, including any criminal records of any individuals affected during the cause of the ethnic tension’ (TRC Report 2012: 1182). Of course, ex-combatant support for a proposed amnesty is wholly unsurprising: after all, it is their interests that are best served by the promise of impunity.
Despite the fervent pleas of many ex-combatants, the TRC Report does not support the promotion of the Forgiveness Bill for two main reasons. First, the Commissioners argue that granting impunity to the perpetrators of serious crimes will not help reconciliation:
The Commission considers that a Forgiveness Bill.would be envisaging some kind of process to remove the responsibility for crimes committed during conflict from former militants and perpetrators and rehabilitate them fully into society, without conceding justice to the victims. Impunity is not helpful for reconciliation. (TRC Report 2012: 746)
This marks a significant departure from the South African TRC Report which argues that amnesty is not a form of impunity but an element of restorative justice that is concerned with ‘correcting imbalances, restoring broken relationships—with healing, harmony and reconciliation’ (1998: Vol. 1, 9). In contrast, the Solomon Islands TRC Final Report makes it clear that although restorative justice is necessary for reconciliation, it does not negate the need for retributive or criminal justice:
For victims who received inhuman treatments or deep wounds to their lives demand restorative justice. This does not evade the legal justice process. The perpetrator must face justice. (TRC Report 2012: 713)
This sentiment directly contradicts Tutu’s statement following a visit to Rwanda quoted in the South African TRC Report: ‘I said to them in Kigali, “unless you move beyond justice in the form of a tribunal, there is no hope for Rwanda.” Confession, forgiveness and reconciliation in the lives of nations are not just airy-fairy religious and spiritual things, nebulous and unrealistic. They are the stuff of practical politics’ (South African TRC Report 1998: Vol.5, 400). Thus, while both commissions agreed that reconciliation requires justice beyond mere criminal trials, the Solomon Islands commissioners were firm in their view that restorative justice in no way eliminates the need for perpetrators to be held account for their actions in a court of law.
Second, and commenting on the explicit connection made between amnesty and forgiveness by the proposed Bill, the authors of the TRC Report emphasised that forgiveness is a fundamentally personal practice rather than being the business of the state. ‘Forgiveness,’ the Report makes clear, ‘is the sole prerogative and domain of the victims of the conflict, and them alone’ (2012: 746). The idea that forgiveness is personal and, the associated argument that the state and other institutions should therefore leave forgiveness to individuals, is an often-repeated refrain in the TRC Report. For them, forgiveness is a deeply personal practice that cannot be imposed upon victims or, indeed, expected from them. Thus, although the TRC Report cites forgiveness as an important component of reconciliation, it notes that ‘no preconditions’ including that which claims that forgiveness is a prerequisite for reconciliation, should ‘be placed in the path of reconciliation’ (2012: 706). In large part this is due to recognition, on the part of the Commissioners, that reconciliation processes often place an undue or unfair burden on victims:
In the process of national reconciliation it is often the victims, who have suffered the most, who are thought to be the most duty-bund to reconcile. It is their forgiveness that puts the past to rest. Victims are asked to exchange the recognition of their pain for their rights to justice. (TRC Report 2012: 712)
Thus, while the South African TRC Report acknowledged that forgiveness can be difficult and cautioned against taking forgiveness ‘for granted,’ the Solomon Islands commission went one step further in its recognition of the difficulties faced by victims when asked to bear individual responsibility for societal reconciliation.