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Transitional Justice

Although a number of transitional justice mechanisms were mentioned in the Townsville Peace Agreement, the provisions were far too vague to provide any real basis on which to formulate a formal transitional justice process for the Solomon Islands. As a result, the development of a formal transitional justice program for the Solomon Islands has never been seriously discussed at official levels, nor has any coherent process been devised. Rather, those aspects of transitional justice that have been implemented have appeared on an ad hoc basis, as the by-product of other post-conflict state-building exercises or as part of customary conflict resolution practices. As such, they have largely fallen into one of the two approaches outlined above, focusing on either the rule of law or reconciliation.

The Rule of Law

The Facilitation of International Assistance Act 2003 passed by the Solomon Islands government to authorize the international intervention came into force on July 21,2003. Three days later RAMSI arrived. By the end of its first week the administration of RAMSI had decided to focus its initial efforts on three issues: seizing weapons, ending ongoing fighting on the Weather Coast, and arresting Harold Keke.49 In the end, Keke surrendered peacefully in August 2003, following talks with the head of the international mission, Nick Warner, and was taken into custody to await trial. He was not the only former militia to face incarceration.

In the early months of the RAMSI mission, large numbers of militia members and police officers were arrested and charged with a range of offences including ‘very serious charges.’50 This took place in accordance with RAMSI’s underlying philosophy which held that the fastest way to restore security in the Solomon Islands was to get the guns and the

  • 49 Watson, ‘A Model Pacific Solution?’, p. 19.
  • 50 Braithwaite et al., Pillars and Shadows, p. 55.

militia off the streets. In practical terms, it seems that many RAMSI officers ‘saw it as de facto policy... to charge leading militants with something reasonably plausible to get them locked up on remand while they more carefully sought to build evidence against them.’[1] Predictably, this practice saw RAMSI face criticism for apparently breaching the terms of the amnesties included in the TPA and in the SIG Amnesty Acts of 2000 and 2001. In the end, however, RAMSI officials decided that as they could not reliably determine who ought to qualify for amnesty - because they could not, as per the terms of the amnesties, reliably establish that suspects had returned ‘all weapons and ammunition and stolen property in [their] possession and in [their] custody’ - ‘all allegations of criminal behaviour would be investigated.’[2] Thus, by Christmas at the end of the first year of RAMSI’s intervention, just five months after its arrival, ‘most of the militant leaders were under arrest.’[3]

However, with RAMSI’s initial success in restoring law and order and in detaining a large number of militants came a further challenge. Once arrested, suspects needed to be processed through a criminal justice system which, at the time, ‘barely functioned.’[4] Indeed, such was its state of disrepair that until the arrival of RAMSI, the Solomon Islands government had done ‘little to investigate or prosecute persons responsible for killings and other abuses, contributing to a pervasive climate of impunity.’[4] In accordance with its state-building mission, RAMSI officials maintained that the best, and indeed, only viable way to bring an end to that climate of impunity was to strengthen the criminal justice system to allow it to undertake criminal trials.

In 2005 what became known as the ‘Tension Trials’ began in accordance with Solomon Islands domestic law. The first was the high profile case of Harold Keke, Ronnie Cawa, and Francis Lela who were charged with the murder of Fr. Augustine Geve, a former cabinet minister and Member of Parliament for South Guadalcanal. Under section 202(a) of the Solomon Islands Penal Code, all three were found guilty of murder in either the first or second degree and given mandatory life sentences.[6] On October 28, 2005, the High Court handed down its judgment in the case of the Melanesian Brothers for which Ronny Cawa, Owen Isa, and Joses Kejoa were charged with six counts of murder.[7] Although Isa and Kejoa drew on the defence of compulsion/duress defined under Section 16 of the Penal Code to argue that they were not criminally responsible for the murders, the Court found that the accused ‘must have known’ that the GLF was engaged in the ‘ruthless execution... [of] anyone they considered an enemy.’ As the men had not made efforts to leave the GLF, the Court argued that the defence of compulsion/duress was not available to them, found all three guilty of murder, and sentenced them to life imprisonment. Finally, in April 2007, the High Court found four individuals guilty of murder, wrongful confinement, arson, and membership of an unlawful society in relation to the Marasa beach atrocities. Another six individuals were found guilty of manslaughter over the killings of the two boys.[8]

Although these high-profile cases went ahead relatively quickly, the criminal justice system found itself swamped with a large number of complicated cases. While many had hoped that most ‘would be open and shut and that convictions would follow as night follows day,’ this was not the case, and many individuals ended up spending lengthy periods in remand before being tried and, in some cases, acquitted.[9] Indeed, the justice system was caught in a bind. As the Deputy Special Coordinator of RAMSI, Paul Ash acknowledged, on one hand, ‘no-one is comfortable with delays in the delivery of justice.’ On the other, however, ‘[t]here is no room for short cuts where justice is concerned - either for defendants or for the victims of crime.’[10]

At the same time, while few, if any other post-conflict peace-building operations have been more successful in securing convictions, particularly among senior militants, RAMSI has faced significant criticisms. In particular, in a Parliamentary Inquiry, RAMSI was accused of ‘pursuing selective justice’ in focusing its efforts on capturing and prosecuting ten most wanted figures.[11] As its critics noted, this meant that other ‘big fish’, including prominent political and business leaders, were allowed to get away with serious crimes.[12] In addition, some of those charged and imprisoned or held on remand argued that they were political prisoners (although external reports such as the 2005 U.S. State Department’s annual human rights country reports have consistently stated that there are no political prisoners in the Solomon Islands). Explicitly referring to the laws of war, these detainees have maintained that they did not act criminally in killing enemy soldiers in battle.[13] That said, the murder charges they have faced have all involved the killing of civilians.

  • [1] Braithwaite et al., Pillars and Shadows, p. 50.
  • [2] Watson, ‘A Model Pacific Solution?’, p. 31;Solomon Islands Amnesty Act, 2001, 3.
  • [3] Braithwaite et al., Pillars and Shadows, p. 52.
  • [4] U.S. Department of State, ‘Solomon Islands’, p. 4.
  • [5] U.S. Department of State, ‘Solomon Islands’, p. 4.
  • [6] Regina v. Keke, Judgment, 2005: 24, 26, 27.
  • [7] Regina v. Ronny Cawa, Owen Isa, and Joses Kejoa, High Court of Solomon Islands,Criminal Case No. 320 of 2004 (Judgment October 28, 2005), at http://www/ (accessed May 2, 2011).
  • [8] Roddy Seko v. Regina, High Court of Solomon Islands, Criminal Case No. 350 of 2005,at (accessed May 2,2011).
  • [9] Averre, ‘The Tension Trials’, p. 4;RAMSI now reports that remand times havebeen reduced to an average of five months. See (accessed May 2, 2011).
  • [10] Paul Ash, Address to the Rotary Club, Honiara, March 13, 2007, at - Address-to-Rotary-Honiara-2265a572-63c2-430c-aedb-8edcbf90c9fb-0.pdf (accessed May 2, 2011).
  • [11] Parliamentary Inquiry, Parliamentary Inquiry into the Facilitation of International Assistance Notice 2003 and RAMSI Intervention, Chairman, Hon. Peter Boyers (Honiara:Parliament of Solomon Islands, 2009), p. 135.
  • [12] Braithwaite et al., Pillars and Shadows, p. 138;Kabutaulaka, ‘Solomon Islands’, p. 427.
  • [13] Braithwaite et al., Pillars and Shadows, p. 138.
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