Youth Engagement in the Solomon Islands

In many transitional countries, the youth demographic often constitutes the largest proportion of the population. This is certainly true of the Solomon Islands, both during the Tensions and at the time of the TRC. Indeed, the 1999 census recorded a population size of 409,042, of which 131,231 were between the ages of 14 and 29 years (International Labour Office 2009: 5). That is, the youth demographic made up 29 per cent of the population. Youth therefore were key agents with a unique investment in the outcome of transitional justice activities in the Solomon Islands.

The importance of acknowledging the position of youth as key stakeholders, particularly at an institutional level, was one of the core findings of the TRC’s Final Report. Specifically, the recommendations concluded that ‘the Government must ensure that youth are recognised and supported if they are to be seen as productive citizens of this nation’ (TRC Report 2012: 722). Yet to understand the significance of this response by the Commission, it is necessary to consider the nature and extent of their participation in the TRC process. In particular, it is crucial to examine the core issues that were exposed due to youth engagement. Indeed, several interrelated narratives appear throughout the Solomon Islands TRC Final Report and transcripts including the centrality of the development process to youth’s story and their justice needs, the capacity of youth to exercise agency, the importance of meaningful collaboration, and the need for a more nuanced understanding of adolescent’s true motivations for engaging in the conflict.

The Solomon Islands TRC process reveals variations in the ways in which key stakeholders ‘frame’ youth engagement. Youth’s self-representations throughout the statement taking process are in stark contrast to the ways they are portrayed or talked about in the Final Report’s chapter on children. Specifically, the Final Report amalgamates the experiences of young people into a single chapter, which employs the descriptors child and youth interchangeably (TRC Report 2012: 5.2). Furthermore, the report utilises the victim/perpetrator binary to thematically represent young people’s needs and interest. For example, the two primary subheadings of the report are ‘Children as Victims’ and ‘“Raskols” and militants: Children as perpetrators’ (TRC Report 2012: 629). These ‘frames’ are problematic as they fail to account for children and youth whose experiences occupied the grey area, namely, as both a victim and a perpetrator. Moreover, they represent young people in a manner which disregards displays of agency and capacity evident through a closer reading of submissions made by youth at the special hearing (TRC Report 2012: 994-1023). This dichotomous description is problematic because as the UNDP Country Report notes, young people were significantly impacted by the Tensions, both as participants in the violence and as bystanders (Noble et al. 2011: 108). As such, the distinct experiences of youth in this case warrant consideration separate from children.

The Final Report also perpetuates many of the narrow normative assumptions regarding the ways in which youth experience conflict outlined above. In particular, the Solomon Islands TRC Report reinforces many of the themes and issues that scholars have identified misrepresent youth, most prominently, the victim or perpetrator binary (Pruitt 2013: 6). Indeed, the chapter on young people is underpinned by the Solomon Islands’ legal obligation to protect children from armed conflict, outlined in the UNCRC. As a result, the Report reflects at length on the experiences of young people as the ‘most vulnerable’ individuals during conflict (TRC Report 2012: 629).

Indeed, throughout the chapter on children, youth are represented as passive recipients, caught in the crossfires of the political struggles. For instance, in the section on their experiences as victims, youth are portrayed as individuals easily manipulated by the militant groups. As one participant at the focus groups in Auki described, youth ‘were promised much by their leaders at the time of the fighting,’ but they ‘have not had their expectations met nor [their] promises fulfilled’ (TRC Report 2012: 634).

This representation of youth implies that they were pawns manipulated by militant groups, using promises and false incentives. The chapter, however, describes youth as ‘disaffected ex-combatants’ which fails to account for the agency displayed by youth in their testimonies. For example, the same youth mentioned above also explained that while they may have been manipulated, they were also ‘reluctant [to] relinquish [the] power’ they experienced as combatants (TRC Report 2012: 634). Therefore, while youth may be victims, the suggestion in the TRC Report that they were the most vulnerable members of society lacks a clear understanding of the choices young people made during the conflict.

Similarly, another youth identified by the Report as a victim explained that ‘my parents did not like me to follow the militants but I disobeyed and followed them on my own’ (TRC Report 2012: 633). Again the notion of agency is present in this statement, which indicates that while the impact of the Tensions may have negatively affected their lives and thus made them victims, this classification is too simplistic. Specifically, it does not reflect the autonomous decisions made by youth, which produced their post-conflict victim status. As such, the overreliance on the victim classification when describing youth’s situation obscures the nuance and complexity of their experiences. While youth were victims, they were also active agents, yet the children’s chapter in the TRC Report fails to reflect their experiences this way.

At the same time, the Solomon Islands TRC Report also highlights notions of deviance, savagery, and violence amongst its youth population. These frames depict youth as a threat and potential spoilers that need to be managed or controlled (McEvoy-Levy 2011: 166-168; Peters 2011: 34). Indeed, many of the representations of youth in the report emphasise the ‘deterioration of social behaviour among young people as a long-term result of the conflict, as is seen in the widespread “masta liu” phenomenon’ (TRC Report 2012: 633). Masta liu is a common term in the Solomon Islands employed to describe the ‘many young boys and young men who hang around the town’ (Jourdan 1995: 202). As Jourdan explains, these men are unemployed, lack schooling, and wander aimlessly around Honiara, often ‘on the verge of delinquency’ (1995: 202). This understanding of the youth demographic is deeply rooted in Solomon Islands culture, and as such, youth representation in the TRC Report as liu is hardly surprising.

Nevertheless, the maintenance of this stereotype by the report is problematic as it misrepresents their interests and justice needs. In addition, it fails to reflect the multitude of other roles that youth took on in the

Solomon Islands post conflict, namely, as researchers, transcribers, aid volunteers, and statement takers (Anonymous Interview 2015). Indeed, this dialectic presentation of young people in the Final Report discounts the interests of a large portion of the Solomon Islands youth demographic. Specifically, many of the submissions by youth demonstrate ownership over their conflict and post-conflict experiences. An examination of the youth submissions, which reflect on their motivations to participate in the conflict, challenges the notion that young people are merely victims and perpetrators.

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