Documenting Women’s Experiences of Conflict and Sexual Violence: On the Ground with the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Louise Vella

The Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was the first truth commission in the Pacific region. It was established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act 20081 with a mandate to ‘promote national unity and reconciliation’ following the civil conflict that affected the country between 1998 and 2003, locally referred to as ‘the Tensions’.2 According to the TRC Act, the commission was also ‘to restore the human dignity of victims and promote reconciliation’ by providing an opportunity for victims and perpetrators to give personal accounts of their experiences, therefore ‘creating a climate which fosters constructive interchange between victims and perpetrators, giving special attention to the subject of sexual abuses and to the experiences of children within the armed conflict’ (TRC Act 2008, 5[2c]).

The TRC made special provisions pertaining to the engagement, inclusion, and representation of women in the TRC process and final report. This included a dedicated women’s program to investigate and

L. Vella (*)

Peace Studies, University of New England, Armidale, Australia Conflict Resolution and Management Program, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia

© The Author(s) 2017

R. Jeffery (ed.), Transitional Justice in Practice, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-59695-6_6

document the varied experiences of women during the conflict, and the explicitly mandated requirement to investigate sexual abuses. This focus follows developments and global expectations in the implementation of truth commissions to give special attention to gender and the experiences of women in transitional justice and peacebuilding. Put simply, it is widely understood that while men and women may face similar kinds of conflict- related abuse, they generally experience violence and conflict differently (Hayner 2011: 85). While truth commissions in the past have been criticised for neglecting this variation and the complexity of gendered experiences, recent truth commissions have endeavoured to rectify this oversight by including dedicated chapters to gender-specific crimes and women’s experiences of conflict in their reports (Hayner 2011: 85-89). Though well-intentioned, efforts to achieve gender sensitivity and representation within an already imported mechanism such as a truth commission, in complex post-conflict settings, is fraught with challenges; not least in a context where globalised ideas of women’s and human rights have yet to be widely adopted or accepted by communities in such terms, such as in the Solomon Islands.

This chapter examines the on-the-ground, everyday experiences of the Solomon Islands TRC. It focuses on the challenges its staff faced in documenting women’s experiences of the conflict, and of sexual violence in particular. Drawing from interviews conducted with dozens of TRC staff and stakeholders,3 and the authors’ own experience of working for the Solomon Islands TRC, this chapter illustrates the frictions created by importing a globalised mechanism into a culturally embedded context; the challenges associated with balancing demands and aspirations for truth, ‘reconciliation’, and a culture of human rights on the national level with localised realities; and the clash that emerges at times between transitional justice discourse and local practices and kastoms in the Solomon Islands.

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