Reparations in the Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands has not had a comprehensive reparation program. There was, however, a monetary compensation scheme, widely regarded as very ineffective (ASPI 2003; Fraenkel 2004; TRC Report 2012). The scheme was set up by the SIG in 2001, pursuant to the Townsville Peace Agreement, and funded by the Government of Taiwan (TRC Report 2012: 657). The shortcomings of this scheme are discussed in some detail below, illuminating the risks and potential limitations of reparations aid.

The Solomon Islands Compensation Scheme

Political imperatives seem to have driven Taiwan’s decision to fund the compensation scheme. In September 2000, the Solomon Islands Foreign Ministry threatened the Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister that Solomon Islands would ‘switch ties to China’ unless Taiwan provided US$40 million in development assistance (Fraenkel 2004: 124). While Taiwan initially refused this demand, in June 2001 Taiwan effectively provided US$25 million in reparations aid to the Solomon Islands ostensibly ‘in return for Solomon Islands’ [continued] diplomatic recognition of it’ (ASPI 2003: 24).

Those entitled to compensation under the scheme were persons who suffered loss or damage to property on Guadalcanal including employment opportunities, business or investments, and personal property during the Tensions (Townville Peace Agreement 2000: 3(2)). The compensation scheme generally neglected other human rights violations including loss of life, displacement, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence. The TRC Report explains that some claims for serious violations were recognised under the scheme ‘but without equity’ (2012: 754). The compensation scheme also did not involve other forms of reparation such as rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition, being limited to monetary payments only.

A major limitation of the scheme was that the SIG had no policy or guidelines to regulate its implementation (TRC Report 2012: 273). There were no clear criteria for who was entitled to compensation under the scheme, and this proved problematic as it ‘opened the door for anyone to make a claim’ (TRC Report 2012: 274). The Ministry of National Unity, Reconciliation and Peace, which implemented the scheme, was ‘flooded’ with claims for compensation (TRC Report 2012: 294). With no policy or guidelines informing implementation of the scheme and no defined categories of human rights violations, there was no consistency or equity in the award of compensation—‘the process was ad hoc and subject to the whims of the moment’ (TRC Report 2012: 299). Further, there was no process in place for confirming the veracity of claims: this gave rise to corruption and misappropriation of funds earmarked for compensation. These are examples of areas where a development agency might have provided some technical assistance for developing a reparations policy and guidelines, to support effective implementation of the compensation scheme. Further, it is a scenario showing that aid efforts to tackle corruption within institutions can help enable the distribution of reparations, thereby enhancing the credibility of a reparations program and so its effectiveness.

Records indicate that compensation ‘payments [were made] to politicians, militants, business people and those with connections to the Government’ (TRC Report 2012: 299). Some militants obtained funds by extortion (TRC Report 2012: 260), and many most adversely affected by the conflict were not compensated (McQuillan 2002). An investigation into the scheme by the Solomon Islands Auditor General found that ‘millions of dollars were spent on highly suspect and dubious claims’ (as cited in TRC Report 2012: 278). Analysis of the compensation scheme conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute describes its ineffectiveness and associated difficulties: ‘[v]ery few legitimate compensation cases have been settled, but large sums have been disbursed to political leaders, former militant leaders and their associates, corrupting what remains of the peace process’ (2003: 24). Compensation was considered a driver of conflict in the Solomon Islands, labelled as a ‘dynamic of disorder,’ fuelling criminality and driving ‘frenzied and sometimes violent competition between claimants’ (TRC Report 2012: 299; Wallis et al. 2016). A local civil society representative interviewed during fieldwork corroborated this view, describing the compensation program as a ‘mess,’ with few people in need compensated.10 The Solomon Islands TRC found that those ‘without influence or means were overlooked’ in the distribution of funds, such that most victims did not receive compensation (TRC Report 2012: 299).

In recognition of this, the Solomon Islands TRC recommended establishing a ‘comprehensive reparation program’ (CRP) (TRC Report 2012: 754-773). The TRC recommended providing a mixture of material and symbolic reparations for people directly affected by conflict and violence. Material reparations recommended include monetary compensation, education scholarships for students whose education was disrupted during the Tensions, mental health care, and gradual housing reconstruction for those who lost their homes. Symbolic measures recommended include reconciliation ceremonies, a national apology by the Prime Minister, a national remembrance day, and the creation of places of memory. Notably, the Final Report of the Solomon Islands TRC envisions aid donor support for reparations (TRC Report 2012: 758). This suggests a clear role for aid donors and throws up questions as to how they might most effectively respond to such requests for assistance.

The Solomon Islands TRC also recommended the complete payout of the above-mentioned compensation scheme, additional to the four in-kind reparative measures (TRC Report 2012). While on the one hand the compensation scheme was very problematic, many victims are legally entitled to compensation and are yet to receive any reparations (UN Basic Principles 2006: Principles 18-20). Of course cultural practices in the Solomon Islands are not static and are continually changing, influenced by an array of factors including migration, trade, and the presence of external actors in the country. It would be culturally essentialist to argue against monetary compensation in all circumstances on the basis of tradition, particularly as international law requires it for the most serious abuses. Yet the way in which the monetary compensation scheme was devised and implemented was thwart with difficulties, stripped of its potential to resolve conflict and build peace. Further, for the compensation scheme to have had any chance of succeeding, it needed to be ‘translated into the cultural context,’ ‘it needed the ceremony around it.’ Kastom involves not only the exchange of valuable goods, but equally important are ‘the speeches that always accompany such gifts.’ Words function to transform compensation into ‘meaningful signs of a sincere desire for reconciliation’ (McDougall & Kere 2011: 151). As one respondent interviewed during fieldwork in the Solomon Islands explained, where implemented without the traditional signifiers and solemn words, compensation was understood just as a ‘hand out.’ They also stressed that compensation payments in particular need(ed) to be accompanied by truth-telling initiatives and a ‘genuine desire to listen to peoples’ stories.’11 For a more in depth discussion of kastom, see Joanna Quinn (this volume).

Here the risks of an international or external actor financing compensation are clear. This is particularly the case where they do not fully appreciate the cultural signifiers or machinations of local and traditional justice and reconciliation processes. The risk is particularly high during a period of violent conflict (as opposed to in its aftermath, once disorder has subsided) and where traditional forms of conflict resolution are not well understood, fragile, and open to abuse.

Taiwan’s funding of the compensation scheme is a lesson in ineffective development practice. Support was ill suited to the context: state institutions were hardly functioning and so did not have the capacity to administer a complex compensation scheme. For this form of development aid to have succeeded, at the very least, it would need to have been accompanied by ongoing, rigorous efforts to strengthen institutions charged with its implementation—but this did not occur. Further, the form of assistance was particularly inappropriate (i.e., not relevant to the development context) considering the situation of ‘lawlessness,’ ‘criminality,’ and ‘anarchy’ (TRC Report 2012: 299). Failure to monitor the impact of funding and make corresponding adjustments, or disregard of monitoring results, underscores the shortcomings of Taiwan’s support. The fact that the compensation program is considered a conflict driver highlights how problematic Taiwan’s funding became.

This experience invokes the thesis put forward by Anderson (1999) in her seminal text Do No Harm. Anderson argues that the way that donors provide aid in conflict-affected contexts can either support, or fuel, peace or conflict (Anderson 1999: 2-3). As Anderson explains, ‘[w]hen international assistance is given in the context of a violent conflict, it becomes part of that context and thus also of the conflict’ (Anderson 1999: 145). Taiwan’s assistance is an unfortunate example of aid’s potential for harm. Arguably also, by assuming the total funding burden, as Taiwan did, the atoning quality that the compensation scheme might have had, to reconcile the state with its citizens, was largely removed.

Unfortunately, this very negative experience of compensation in the Solomon Islands has created a great reluctance among various international development agencies to engage with any future reparations program—this was a theme repeated in a number of fieldwork interviews.12 One respondent explained that ‘all that went wrong with this compensation scheme coloured later efforts for reconciliation and reparation. It created a kind of fear of the restorative justice approach which might have scared away donors from engaging further.’13 Yet there remains a need in the Solomon Islands to provide reparations to victims of conflict: the Solomon Islands TRC highlighted this, finding that victims are still ‘waiting and want to see the Government compensating the people who had been affected’ (TRC Report 2012: 141). These findings evoke an ongoing sense of injustice among victims. This is a reality and part of the development context of which development actors should be aware.

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