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Reconciliation and the Rule of Law in the Solomon Islands

Rende Jeffery

‘[L]aw and order is here but peace is not in our hearts.’[1]

In late 1998 the Melanesia archipelago state of the Solomon Islands was plunged into a period of chaos and violent civil conflict precipitated by a complex web of grievances, injustices, ethnic tensions, and economic insecurities. Known colloquially as ‘the Tensions’, the low-intensity conflict dragged on until the middle of 2003, leaving an estimated 200 people dead and more than 20,000 displaced from their homes.[2] Although in comparison to other civil conflicts in the region the events in the Solomon Islands claimed relatively few lives, they were, nonetheless, marked by the protracted, systematic, and consistent violation of human rights. In addition to the kidnapping and murder of local and international civilians, including missionaries and peace envoys, the Tensions saw rampant torture and the entrenchment of gender-based violence, including the widespread rape of women and girls.3

Following a request made by the then-Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Sir Allan Kemakeza, for assistance to quell the increasing insecurity and instability in his country, on July 24, 2003, the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) arrived in the capital, Honiara. Operating under a pidgin name, Operation Helpem Fren, RAMSI’s overwhelming display of force quickly brought ‘the miracle ... that Solomon Islanders had been praying for’, the restoration of law and order and the cessation of overt violence.4 Alongside the standard expectation of an intervening force to ‘[e]nsure the safety and security of the Solomon Islands’, RAMSI was also mandated to institute significant reforms and improvements in the ‘machinery of government’, economic governance, and law and justice, the so-called ‘three pillars’ of the mission.5 In particular, what made RAMSI unusual among interventions of its type was its ‘unusually strong rule-of-law agenda’ which, in the immediate phase, demanded the restoration of the Solomon Islands’ ‘“barely functioning” criminal justice system.’6 Its initial success in doing so is unquestionable: less than four months after arriving in the Solomon Islands, RAMSI had facilitated the arrests of some 1,340 individuals, many of whom were accused of committing serious offences including murder and other human rights violations.7

  • 3 International Australia, ‘Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission a Historic Opportunity’, March 8, 2010, at 22663/ (accessed May 2,2011).
  • 4 Mary-Louise O’Callaghan, ‘RAMSI - the Way Ahead’ in Sinclair Dinnen and Stewart Firth (eds.), Politics and Statebuilding in Solomon Islands (Canberra: ANU E Press,
  • 2008), p. 186.
  • 5 Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, ‘What is RAMSI?’, at http://www. (accessed May 2, 2011);Michael G. Morgan and Abby McLeod, ‘Have We Failed Our Neighbour?’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 60, No. 3 (2006), p. 418.
  • 6 Braithwaite et al., Pillars and Shadows, p. 3; Michael Fullilove, ‘RAMSI and State Building in Solomon Islands’, Defender, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2006), p. 33.
  • 7 Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka, ‘Australian Foreign Policy and the RAMSI Intervention in Solomon Islands’, The Contemporary Pacific, Vol. 17, No. 2 (2005), p. 279.

Although RAMSI’s actions brought with them the initial impression of swift justice for human rights violations, as time dragged on, defendants remained in remand, and the criminal justice system became bogged down by the large number of complex cases before it. Questions emerged over whether RAMSI had in fact contributed to a new set of tensions between the rule of law approach it had implemented and the reconciliation approach favoured by large sectors of the community. Indeed, amongst the defining features of the Solomon Islands case is the fact that no formal transitional justice processes has been planned or implemented: neither during the lengthy peace process that brought the conflict to an end nor in the immediate aftermath of hostilities was an explicit transitional justice process or set of mechanisms developed or instituted.[3] Rather, in what was a relatively organic process, particular interest groups devised and implemented various mechanisms designed to bring accountability for human rights violations. These fell into two broad groups. Conceiving justice through the prism of its liberal statebuilding mandate, RAMSI’s rule of law approach was, and remains, a top-down approach that favours the strengthening of key state institutions, including those associated with law and order, and the pursuit of accountability through criminal trials. By contrast, the reconciliation approach is a bottom-up method of post-conflict justice that favours local, grass-roots, traditional, and indigenous justice processes. In the case of the Solomon Islands, these localized practices and processes were routinely implemented by community groups, women’s organizations, and the churches throughout the peace process and the post-conflict recovery period.

Although these two approaches have technically operated independently in the Solomon Islands, proponents of each have accused the other of hampering their justice efforts. Thus, while supporters of prosecutions and punishment have argued that forgiveness and reconciliation processes circumvent justice and limit or even eliminate the possibility of achieving accountability for past human rights violations, proponents of reconciliation maintain that RAMSI’s law and justice approach is impeding reconciliation efforts.[4] In particular, supporters of reconciliation argue that the adversarial nature of the criminal justice system results in the suppression of truth rather than its recovery and stymied attempts to address and resolve the tensions that fuelled the violence.

At the heart of disagreements over how justice ought to be administered in this case is the very notion of justice itself and, in particular, what constitutes accountability for human rights violations. Also at play is a fundamental set of relationships between peace and justice, state and society, and local and international justice processes. With this in mind, this chapter examines the interactions of the law and order and reconciliation approaches pursued in the case of the Solomon Islands and assesses the extent to which they have, individually, and in concert with one another, achieved accountability for human rights violations. It also considers the extent to which the Solomon Islands’ Truth and Reconciliation Commission has successfully bridged the justice divide.

  • [1] Parts of this chapter have previously appeared in Renee Jeffery, ‘Enduring Tensions:Transitional Justice in the Asia-Pacific’, Pacific Review (available on pre-view, 2013);Statement of Solomon Islander, Honiara, November 2005, quoted in Anna Powles,‘Mission Creep: Statebuilding from Honiara to Dili’, Security Challenges, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2006), p. 11.
  • [2] Aileen Thomson, ‘Truth and Reconciliation in the Solomon Islands’, The Human RightsBrief, Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, April 16,2010, at (accessed May 2, 2011);John Braithwaite, Sinclair Dinnen, Matthew Allen, Valerie Braithwaite, and HilaryCharlesworth, Pillars and Shadows: Statebuilding as Peacebuilding in Solomon Islands(Canberra: ANU E Press, 2010), p. 20.
  • [3] Hilary Charlesworth, ‘Building Democracy and Justice After Conflict’, OccasionalPaper 2/2007, the Cunningham Lecture, the Academy of the Social Sciences inAustralia, Canberra, 2007, p. 9, at (accessed May 2, 2011).
  • [4] Interestingly, this latter view is also shared by at least one of the defence lawyers whorepresented individuals at the ‘Tension Trials’. See Kenneth Hall Averre, ‘The TensionTrials: A Defence Lawyer’s Perspective of Post Conflict Intervention in SolomonIslands’, State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Working Paper, Number 2008/3,Canberra: Australian National University, p. 10;Jack Maebuta and Rebecca Spencewith Iris Wielders and Michael O’Loughlin, ‘Attempts at Building Peace in the SolomonIslands: Disconnected Layers’, Reflecting on Peace Practice Project, Cumulative ImpactCase Study (Cambridge, MA: Collaborative Learning Projects, 2009), p. 22.
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