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The Townsville Peace Agreement
The peace process that finally brought the Solomon Islands conflict to an end was long, arduous and marked by numerous false starts. The
Townsville Peace Agreement (TPA), finally reached on October 15, 2000, makes mention of this by listing the previous attempts made by the Solomon Islands Government to bring an end to the conflict: the Honiara Peace Accord (June 28,1999), the Panatina Agreement (August 12,1999), the Marau Communique (July 15,1999), the Memorandum of Understanding between the SIG and the GPG (June 13,1999), the Buala Peace Communique (May 5, 2000), and the Auki Communique (May 12, 2000). Not mentioned in the Townsville Agreement was a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting (June 11, 2000), peace negotiations held on the HMAS Tobruk (July 2000) which ‘fell apart when other IFM leaders said they could not sign’ because the notorious rebel leader Harold Keke ‘would not sign the cease-fire’, and the National Peace Conference held on the New Zealand Navy ship Te Kaha (August 25 to 27, 2000) at which the first official calls for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission were made. Indeed, the months leading up to the Townsville negotiations were marked, not only by numerous attempts to find a resolution to the conflict but some of the ‘bloodiest engagements of the IFM-MEF conflict.’ During this time, Keke became ‘the decisive spoiler of the peace’, launching violent attacks and even hijacking a Solomon Islands Airlines airplane.
In addition to securing a cease-fire, the Townsville Peace Agreement included three provisions of particular relevance to the pursuit of justice for human rights violations. First, it included a weapons amnesty, which provided anyone who relinquished their weapon with ‘immunity from prosecution in respect of the stealing or possession of that weapon (or any of a similar kind) at any date after the 1st January, 1998’, as well as a general amnesty. The general amnesty for ‘[m] embers, leaders and other civilian advisors associated with the MEF, IFM, and any
Police, Prison Service or RRU or PFF officers who participated in military operations during the course of the ethnic crisis’ provided immunity for criminal acts perpetrated in connection with the Tensions, including ‘killing in combat conditions or in connection with the armed conflict on Guadalcanal.’ However, as the IFM was not a signatory to the TPA, its members could not benefit from this amnesty provision.
Second, the TPA also made provisions for the location, identification, and recovery of the remains of those killed during the conflict. Third, it also included provisions for post-conflict reconciliation but stopped short of providing for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission flagged during earlier peace negotiations. Instead, it suggested that reconciliation be pursued through ‘face-to-face dialogue... at community, village, family, individual and organizational levels’ and be coupled with ‘public display[s] of forgiveness and confession to be organized by the SIG.’ In addition, the TPA also provided for the establishment of a Peace and Reconciliation Committee ‘to programme and coordinate efforts to achieve full community-based reconciliation and forgiveness throughout Solomon Islands’ which eventually resulted in the establishment of the Ministry of National Unity, Reconciliation, and Peace.
The TPA enjoyed only limited success. While the International Peace Monitoring Team established to monitor the implementation of the agreement, along with the National Peace Council, a key player in the peace process, managed to facilitate the collection of a large number of weapons, most of those surrendered were old World War II and homemade weapons, leaving the majority of the high-powered weapons seized during the conflict at large. In order to facilitate the further surrender of weapons, the Solomon Islands Government instituted Amnesty Acts in 2000 and 2001 which, like the amnesty provision included in the TPA, controversially included immunity from prosecution for offences such as murder. Significantly, however, the amnesties did ‘not apply to any criminal acts done in violation of international humanitarian laws, [or] human rights violations or abuses.’ This limitation, it is thought, was included to ‘allay potential international concerns that the Acts had been drafted so as to provide amnesty for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions that had been allegedly committed by the IFM and the MEF.’ However, as the precise constitution of ‘human rights violations’ was never specified, precisely which crimes are excluded by the amnesty remains unclear. In any case, very few applications for amnesty were made and, in the end, only two amnesties were ever granted in accordance with the 2000 and 2001 acts.
Most problematic for the TPA was, however, Harold Keke’s refusal to lay down arms. Having split from the IFM and formed the Guadalcanal Liberation Front, Keke continued to rule parts of the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal. During 2002 and the early months of 2003, ‘Keke and his followers threatened and murdered more than twenty people in the areas they controlled.’ In the first half of 2003 an Australian Seventh Day Adventist missionary was beheaded, six members of the Melanesian Brotherhood were murdered, and the retired police commissioner, Sir Frederick Soaki, was shot dead in Auki, Malaita. The Melanesian Brotherhood had played a significant role in attempting to broker peace during the Tensions, with members at one stage actually
‘camping between enemy lines’ to prevent further violence. In April 2003, six members attempted to deliver a letter to Harold Keke from the Anglican Archbishop, who had offered to act ‘as go between in peace talks between Keke and the government.’ Accused of being government spies, two of the Brothers were shot and killed by Keke’s men on April 24. The remaining four were held captive overnight and interrogated before being ‘escorted to the beach... and shot beside a grave that had been dug earlier on for them by the GLF.’ As Kabutaulaka thus notes, in the period after the signing of the Townsville Peace Agreement, the ‘Solomon Islands remained in a state of “latent peace” - a situation where there was fear for the potential for violence in society’ to erupt once more.
In response, the Solomon Islands Government launched a so-called joint operation in an attempt to capture Keke. This was a disaster. Not only were members of the joint operation accused of committing human rights violations themselves, but Keke and his militants began retaliating against villagers they believed were supporting the joint operation: ‘They demanded allegiances from villagers and if villagers refused to give it, would torture and kill them and even burn villages to the ground.’ This most notorious instance of this took place in the village of Marasa.
The incident at Marasa is, without question, one of the most gruesome atrocities committed during the Solomon Islands Tensions. For three days from June 16, 2003, members of the GLF held 400 villagers hostage on the beach ‘to punish villagers for allegedly aiding a government operations force.’ Father Lionel Longarata, an Anglican priest, was tied to a canoe and, along with the rest of the villagers, forced to witness the unspeakable torture and eventual murder of two boys selected for killing. As Longarata stated in his testimony to the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission some seven years later:
They were bashed, butted with their rifle, and stoned, streams of blood running down from their faces, they were tied both hands at their back and were ordered to dance while blood ran from their bodies, eventually on the beach the younger one died on the spot, then elder one tried to escape but he could not do it, they continuously to butt him with the bottom of their rifles, they stoned him and he fall, whilst on the ground one of them with a machete cut his back open, all this happened while everyone was watching, young and old, women and children witnessed everything, after being killed their bodied were dragged further down the beach to where the sun was shining and the heat of the great gravel of Marasa heated their bodied, they finished with they did and looked around and saw me . . . and they said I will be the next victim, they came towards me gun pointed me with both of my hands tied on my back and I was pushed down to stay between the 2 dead bodies, after two hours the bodies were taken away and then buried in a shallow grave.
In the end Longarata’s life was spared, but the village was burnt to the ground. Just one month later RAMSI arrived and brought an end to the violence.
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