The case for reconciliation

It is easy to paint a picture of recent history in the Solomon Islands as a country ruined by ‘militia thugs’ and corruption and to boast about the return of law and order through the number of people now in jail since the Australian intervention in July last year. Most Solomon Islanders are grateful for the intervention and the return of law and order, but not all of them are as positive about their experiences. Mothers explain how they rely on the generosity of their neighbours to put food on the table, and how their children have had to leave school because there is no money for school fees. This is because their husbands, often the sole breadwinners in the entire extended family, have been sentenced to lengthy periods in jail for minor offences committed during the ‘tension’, as the locals call it.

Jail is not the only way to solve the law-and-order crisis in the Solomon Islands. East Timor adopted reconciliation as the way to address crimes committed during the conflict between 1974 and 1999. Commissioners and victims of the crimes mediate an agreement with the perpetrators of less serious crimes. The legal system continues to deal with serious crimes such as murder. The result has been the reintegration of many militia members back into their communities with agreements to address the damage caused by their crimes. The system has assisted in reconciling and strengthening their society.

In July 2003, the Australian Government, supported by other countries in the region, intervened to restore law and order to the Solomon Islands and prevent it becoming a ‘failed’ state that could lead to security issues for Australia over the longer term. The tension, which impinged on law and order from 1998, had a number of complex causes. The Solomon Islands is made up of a number of different ethnic and language groups that were administered together during colonial times by the British until 1978 when it achieved independence. Conflicts arose in the late 1990s over land and resources and the way those resources were distributed. There were also issues about the lack of economic opportunities, displacement of rural communities in a move to a cash economy, and no access to free education. Conflicts reached crisis point around the capital, Honiara, as different groups moved there seeking employment and educational and economic opportunities. Disputes between ethnic groups around Honiara in 1998 and 1999 degenerated into armed conflict. A full-scale civil war was averted; however, over the next few years intimidation (often by former militia members) became the norm, and law-and-order problems, as well as corruption and mismanagement, compounded the country’s economic circumstances.

The Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands (RAMSI) commenced in July 2003 at the request of the Solomon Islands Government and quickly restored order. Weapons amnesties led to the surrender and destruction of many weapons used during the tension. Finance officials came also, to assist with the country’s economy and restore the budget. RAMSI forces then began to investigate many of the crimes committed during the tension that were still unresolved. RAMSI arrested a large number of people including many of the principal militia leaders. As at October 2004, some 4182 people had been arrested and 6124 charges laid, in a country of 400,000 people. There are now more than 60 serious trials awaiting hearing before the High Court, mostly for murder.
In planning the intervention, the Australian Government in conjunction with the Solomon Islands Government determined that the existing justice system could deal with the large increase in criminal charges. Investigators charged people with offences under existing criminal legislation. Australia provided staff through funding additional magistrates, prosecutors and defence counsel. AusAID provided funding, some $45 million per annum, to ensure the existing legal system could cope with the influx of cases. Other than what was already committed to existing peace-building efforts through the National Peace Council, no additional funding was given for alternative dispute mechanisms such as customary law to assist villages in resolving disputes.

The intervening forces restored law and order by using the existing criminal law that is based on English criminal law. The Solomon Islands Government chose not to use a specialised tribunal or a reconciliation commission to deal with crimes committed during the tension. The existing criminal justice system allows only for mediation of minor crimes and disputes, such as common assault or property damage, and none involving weapons. Sentencing laws are based on the theory of punishment and deterrence. They do not reflect the belief in Australia that jail should be used only as a last resort where other alternative options have failed or are inappropriate. Hundreds of smaller matters have already come before the courts in the Solomon Islands and received often quite lengthy sentences. Because of the lack of alternative sentencing procedures, it is not unusual for a first offender to go to jail for a significant period, for offences that would not result in a prison sentence in Australia.

While the legal system allows for the relatively easy arrest of those alleged to have committed crimes, it does not take into account the circumstances that surround the crimes and their causes, or the fact that many of these crimes are unique to the tension. 

Among those arrested by RAMSI and still on remand in Rove Prison is a 17-year-old boy who was originally charged in July 2004 with assault occasioning actual bodily harm. The charge was later changed to murder after the death of the victim. Prior to the incident, the boy was a normal 15-year-old attending school on the Weathercoast whose world was shattered by the death of his father during conflicts there. The victim had been involved in the murder of the boy’s father. Despite being bright, the boy has not been to school in the past two years due to the economic circumstances of his family since his father’s murder.

Is the answer to the outburst of a 15-year-old at the death of his own father to sentence him at the age of 17 to life imprisonment? That sentence is mandatory if he is found guilty of murder in the Solomon Islands. Is he a menace to society or simply someone who is a victim of the tension and its problems who also needs healing and reconciliation? He has already been denied bail and, despite his age, will probably spend at least a year awaiting trial in an adult prison. Would it not have been better to try to reconcile this matter and make him accountable to his community for the assaults, perhaps through doing service to the community and its rebuilding efforts, and to concentrate on his future?

Some members of the community, including the Solomon Islands Christian Association, wanted to deal with crimes committed during the tension by reconciling with the offenders. Women’s groups, including the Reconciliation and Peace Committee, formed by the Federation of Women, Family Support Centre and Women for Peace, also supported reconciliation and peace efforts. They believed that to jail people for less serious crimes would not help to heal the wounds and differences in Solomon Islands society. They recognised that villages had traditional ways to resolve disputes, and they wanted to strengthen them to incorporate aspects of the South African or East Timorese processes of reconciliation.

East Timor has created a Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor. The purpose is to investigate human-rights violations committed on all sides between 1974 and 1999 and facilitate community reconciliation. Unlike the South African model, the commission does not provide amnesty to those who come before it. However, it does work together with the formal justice system and is designed to assist that system by addressing a large number of less serious crimes that might otherwise burden the courts. In particular, the commission is designed to deal with lesser crimes such as looting and burning. A panel of commissioners mediates between victims and perpetrators to reach agreements that are to be carried out by the perpetrators. The District Court is then responsible for enforcing such reconciliation agreements. Serious crimes continue to be heard in the criminal justice system.

According to recent reports in the commission’s update, there have been many community meetings to deal with the actions of former militia members. For example, the January 2004 update gave details of hearings involving 20 deponents who gave testimony at a hearing concerned with their activities as militia members in Caikasa, Maubara, the birthplace of the notorious Besi Merah Putih militia. The update noted: ‘The CAVR’s Liquica team facilitated the public meeting which saw a high community turnout and level of involvement. After Caikasa elders had sanctified the proceedings with rituals according to local tradition the participants were allowed the opportunity to apologise for their actions, promise never to involve themselves in such actions again, and were once more received by their community.’

One case with which I was involved showed the benefits of reconciliation in comparison to a traditional legal outcome. Four boys from Guadalcanal were charged with trespass and criminal damage to a leaf hut. The boys destroyed the leaf hut of a family that had recently resettled in their village. The family had lived there prior to the tension but had fled during the conflict, as they were from a different province, Malaita, that was involved in fighting at that time with those from Guadalcanal around Honiara.

In early 2004, they returned to the village but also refused to provide any reconciliatory offerings to the village to promote their peaceful reintegration back into their society. A fight developed between a member of the resettling family and the boys. As a result of the dispute, the boys destroyed the family’s hut. I sought the assistance of their chief to respond to the charge, who luckily was also a trained National Peace Council mediator. He organised a reconciliation meeting and involved the whole village in a discussion to reach a peaceful agreement which involved a traditional exchange of gifts to indicate that all was forgiven on both sides. It was difficult to convince the court, however, that this was the best option, as the magistrate was reluctant to allow these boys to ‘escape’ punishment. In fact, the magistrate indicated this kind of intimidation was the very cause of the tension and the boys must be accountable for their actions. Despite this, he finally accepted the chief’s reconciliation efforts and dismissed the charges, and it was all smiles from the boys, and the villagers, including the victims, who were present in court.
As many of the offences committed during the tension were less serious crimes, including assault, brandishing weapons in public, intimidation, theft and demanding money with menace, much could be achieved by promoting reconciliation as a preliminary approach. What better way to make police officers or other ex-militants reconcile with their communities than involving them in rebuilding efforts such as road works that are desperately needed? If these options were not successful in reaching adequate solutions and agreement between the parties, then recourse might still be found under criminal law.

Most reconciliation is occurring outside the formal legal structures through the churches. In June 2004, a conference, ‘The Winds of Change, from Tension to Transformation’, was held in Honiara by Moral Re-Armament. Representatives from around the world came to share their experiences and help ‘rebuild personal and public integrity and ethnic harmony in the Solomon Islands’. South Africans who attended told their own powerful stories of how they had developed friendships with those who had killed their relatives. But these systems are dependent on the strength of the non-government sector and their efforts. The RAMSI intervention has not sought to capitalise on these efforts and continue to build them in any widespread way.

Locking people up for less serious crimes does not seem the best answer to the problems in the Solomon Islands. The causes of the tension are complex and deep-seated. Sentencing people to jail for minor crimes committed during that time will not aid in healing the wounds and building a stronger society. As a result, many are becoming disenchanted and marginalised. Without adequate structures to promote reconciliation, it is unlikely to occur through existing court structures except in limited cases. Courts by their nature are conservative and focus on punishment to deter future problems. The sentencing of people to jail, often with harsh sentences, is generating a breeding ground for future discontent. Currently there are no organised rehabilitation programs within the jail system. The families of those being punished are also suffering greatly because their main breadwinner is lost and the economic situation is still difficult, with high unemployment rates. The law-and-order approach serves Australia’s short-term interests, but without reconciliation it is unlikely to bring continued peace to the Solomon Islands in the long term or security to our forces who are serving there. 

Kirsty Ruddock is a lawyer who worked in the Public Solicitor’s Office in Honiara during 2004. All images by Kirsty Ruddock.


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