VIEW ON THE PACIFIC
Peter Hosking SJ
Head of government: Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza
Border countries: Papua, New Guinea, Vanuatu, Australia
In the last six years, conflict between militant groups from the
two major islands – Guadalcanal and Malaita – brought
the Solomon Islands to the brink of collapse. Atrocities were committed
on both sides with some of the worst occurring on the Weathercoast
where the rebel, Harold Ke’ke operated. The arrival of RAMSI
(the Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands) in July
2003 effectively brought an end to that violence and over the last
year helped to re-develop the police and justice systems. However
much remains to be done. Patterns of corruption in the country’s
leadership, lack of resources for rural areas, entrenched land grievances,
and few opportunities for young people are some of the issues now
to be addressed. These next steps are perhaps the most necessary
to change the systems sourcing the violence.
The Solomon Islands is an archipelago of mountainous islands and
low-lying coral isles in the South Pacific Ocean, east of Papua
New Guinea, and north of Vanuatu. It is closer to the Australian
mainland than New Zealand. The six largest islands are Guadalcanal,
Malaita, Choiseul, New Georgia, Santa Isabel, and Makira.
It has a young and growing population of 500,000 people. The median
age is about 18 years and the population growth rate is about 2.8%.
While Honiara has about 50,000 people, most towns and villages are
small in size. Ethnically over 90% of the people are Melanesian.
Melanesian Pijin is the lingua franca in much of the country although
there are some 80 different language groups and these have dialects
as well. 95% of the people are Christian with the principal religions
being the Church of Melanesia (Anglican) about 35%; Roman Catholic
20%; South Seas Evangelical Church 15%; with the United Church (Methodist)
and Seventh-day-Adventist having about 10% each.
Communal, familial and clan ties remain strong in Solomon Islands.
Most islanders see themselves first as members of a clan, next as
inhabitants of their natal island, and only third as citizens of
their nation. Many consider themselves to be part of an immediate
family of about 200 and some can trace back their ancestors at least
ten generations. The Pijin word “wantok” (one talk)
refers to people from the same language group and is used to indicate
blood relatives in the extended family.
Around 75% of the population engage in subsistence farming and
fishing and have little involvement in the formal or cash economy.
The GDP is about $700 per annum, similar to East Timor. The export
industry is small and includes fish, mining, and timber. Mineral
resources are undeveloped. Natural resources include fish, timber,
gold, bauxite, phosphates, lead, zinc, and nickel. Agricultural
products include cocoa beans, coconuts, palm kernels, rice, potatoes,
vegetables, fruit, cattle, pigs, as well as timber and fish. There
has been much deforestation and soil erosion and many of the surrounding
coral reefs are dead or dying. The Solomon Islands relies heavily
on aid from Australia. Most manufactured goods and petroleum products
must be imported. The main imports are foodstuffs, consumer goods,
machinery and transport materials.
Self-government was achieved in 1976 and independence announced
on 7 July, 1978. There is a capital territory, Honiara, and 9 provinces
are administered locally by elected Provincial Assemblies. The National
Parliament has 50 seats with members elected by popular vote to
serve four-year terms. The Prime Minister, elected by a majority
vote of Parliament, selects his own Cabinet that exercises executive
authority. The Governor General, Ini Lapli, represents the British
monarch as the local Head of State. Over the years some in political
office have been criticized for malfeasance and nepotism. Indeed
the Solomon Island Government has faced persistent allegations of
corruption and incompetence.
Events since 1998
Ethnic violence, government corruption, and widespread crime have
undermined civil stability. In the late 1990’s, tension between
the Guadalcanalese and the Malaitans escalated on the main island
of Guadalcanal. This arose mainly from unresolved land and social
disputes between local villagers and settlers who had arrived mostly
from Malaita Island since World War 2. Armed groups of Guadalcanal
people, many who were unemployed youths, drove out of the rural
areas people from other islands. These militants were known as the
Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM). Thousands of Malaitan families were
forced to abandon their homes and villages and flee to Honiara.
In January 2000, Malaitan militants formed the Malaitan Eagles
Force (MEF) and retaliated against the IFM. Large quantities of
weapons were transferred from the police (the majority of whom are
Malaitans) to the MEF. Many police assisted the MEF, and some were
involved in unwarranted use of lethal force against civilians when
pursuing the Guadalcanalese militants. In June 2000 the MEF seized
control of the capital, forced Prime Minister Ulufa’ulu to
resign and parliament to form a new government with Sogavare as
the interim Prime Minister. MEF fighters also linked with the Bougainville
secessionist movement and seized some western towns. A new Parliament
was elected in December 2001 and Sir Allan Kemakeza appointed Prime
The armed conflict between Malaitan and Guadalcanalese militants
led to a serious deterioration in security. Violence and crime increased.
Successive governments had limited success in their efforts to restore
peace. The political institutions were weak, political leaders felt
obligations to the conflicting parties, and some Members of Parliament
took sides. The police were implicated in the violence and exploitation.
The judiciary was hampered by threats against judges and prosecutors.
The police and judicial systems were ineffective in investigating
human rights abuses, and the lack of Government insistence to examine
crimes contributed to a climate of impunity.
Efforts occurred to resolve the conflict and in November 2000 many
committed themselves to the terms of the Townsville Peace Agreement.
It was significant at the time and delayed further Australian assistance.
However by 2002, despite the efforts of an international observer
team that arrived following the Townsville Peace Agreement, the
security situation had worsened. Militants from both sides committed
human rights abuses including murder, kidnap, rape and sexual assault,
forced displacement, looting, and arson. Tens of thousands were
cut off from basic food supplies, medical and other relief. Many
were tortured and killed by the militants. People lived in fear
of looting or ‘payback’ cruelty by militia groups or
Where the Government failed, many in the church responded. They
provided humanitarian support getting medicines and vital supplies
to displaced people. They ferried the wounded and essential supplies
through check points. They were involved in peace and reconciliation
initiatives. They listened to the stories of persecution and slaughter
and investigated the reports of people killed. They negotiated for
the release of hostages and were involved in the collection of weapons.
Some, such as the Anglican Melanesian Brotherhood, paid the price
of having their own members murdered, kidnapped and tortured. They
were seen as people of integrity and impartiality, who practiced
the ministry of reconciliation. Seven members of the Melanesian
Brotherhood were abducted and killed by Ke’ke’s followers
in March and April 2003.
With the breakdown of law and order, the formal sector of the economy
was on the brink of collapse. The Government was insolvent and most
commercial export activities ceased to operate. Hospitals and schools
ceased to function for a lack of funds. Public servants were not
paid and many did not turn up to work. Roads fell into disrepair
especially during the wet season. Ke’ke and his supporters
continued their destructive campaign in the Weathercoast, committing
acts of murder, rape, abduction and looting. A Joint Operations
group set out to curb Ke’ke’s influence, was also ruthless
in its activities.
The RAMSI response
In July 2003 a multinational force arrived at the invitation of
the Solomon Islands Government. Their task was to assist the Government
in restoring law and order and in rebuilding the country’s
institutions. The Regional Assistance Mission for Solomon Islands
(RAMSI) known as “Helpum fren” (helping a friend) had
three broad functions. Firstly, it included a military arm to win
and keep the peace. 1,700 troops arrived from nine countries in
the region. Ke’ke and other militant leaders surrendered within
weeks of their arrival. Under an amnesty, over 3,700 weapons including
about 700 high-powered military-style weapons were removed from
circulation. The security situation stabilized quickly and the foreign
troop numbers were reduced accordingly.
The second aim of RAMSI, the restoration of law and order, involved
some 300 police from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and other regional
countries. It has been largely successful and the climate of fear
has diminished. Justice has been pursued effectively enough. With
so many police directly involved in the atrocities and corruption,
much reform had to occur and the force has been overhauled. Charges
have been laid against such militants as Ke’ke, but also senior
police. Many people have been arrested, most for violent crimes
– murder, abduction, rape and robbery. Prisons have been repaired
and courts restored. The ability to investigate crimes effectively
has been important. It develops confidence in the country’s
ability to protect people, ensures justice is done, enables true
reconciliation to occur, and builds the future where people know
such violence should not happen again. This contrasts with the case
in East Timor where there was a lack of political will and capacity
to bring the perpetrators to justice. In the Solomon Islands, some
perpetrators of the militant violence have already been sentenced.
There are many to be followed up, but the process of evidence gathering
is taking place and the willingness to reliably prosecute is clear.
Corrrupt poiliticians and businessmen are being called to account.
Convictions against prominent and powerful figures will be a test
of the integrity and credibility the Solomon Islands judiciary.
There are public allegations against corrupt politicians but they
are yet to be called to account formally.
The third arm of the RAMSI response involves institutional capacity
building. Inter alia this involves stabilising finances, balancing
the budget, cleaning up and improving revenue collection, and putting
in place the conditions for economic growth, for attracting foreign
investors, and for rebuilding the local economy. This requires addressing
long-term developmental needs. Endemic corruption in the political
leadership makes this a complex task. Ministers of the crown personally
profited through deals with companies, which had deleterious effects
on villagers. RAMSI has strengthened accountability mechanisms to
combat the culture of corruption. Some of those currently in public
office are expected to be charged. It is important to rebuild the
public service to ensure it can deliver services not only to Honiara,
but also to people in the Provinces. There are some who will be
critical of Australia’s efforts. Some of these are people
whose interests are not met by accountable, transparent government.
The RAMSI mission will benefit from the popular will to change.
People are tired of the violence that crippled their country and
want enduring reform.
What lies ahead?
While many lost faith in the government’s ability to find
solutions in recent years, they did not lose trust in their strong
community life and respected religious traditions. There is a more
secure environment in the villages after years of conflict. The
sociopolitical changes help provide a firm basis from which to rebuild.
There are many resources among the people upon which to build. Solomon
Islanders have an enormous capacity for courage and commitment.
Political reform is not only about having competent, honest and
committed bureaucrats and politicians. It requires an understanding
of the traditional structures in the rural areas and the role of
women and men in the clan, and of hereditary chiefs who exercise
leadership in communities.
RAMSI is not always aware of the local people’s role or capacity.
Its efforts at capacity building need to respect the attitudes and
culture of the people. Policies and development plans designed by
foreign experts in offices in Honiara may look fine on paper but
are not as easily applied to the reality of life of people in the
villages. It is important that development respects the rights,
livelihood and dignity of the Solomon Island people especially those
who are most marginalized. 90% of the population lives outside of
Honiara and most live simple lives. They have never had the benefit
of an effective centralised government. RAMSI needs to work with
local church communities and traditional leaders as much as it does
with bureaucrats in Honiara.
Reconciliation is an ongoing concern in places where there has
been a lot of violence. Former militants suspected of crimes are
still in the Weathercoast area. There are people who perpetrated
violence living in the same neighbourhood as their victims. Some
of these are kept in check by the presence of RAMSI but there is
still ongoing tension and issues of truth telling and restorative
justice will be important in the coming months, years and even decades.
This process can take many decades, for example in Bougainville,
the recent series of reconciliation ceremonies date back to offences
carried out in World War 2. As well as the mechanisms of retributive
justice (the formal processes of police, court, conviction, prison),
there are also traditional restitution offerings and reconciliation
ceremonies that need to be appreciated. Many people have ongoing
reactions to the trauma they experienced. Many experience anger,
anxiety, shame, depression, as well as trying to cope with shattered
assumptions and changed relationships. Trauma affects people at
both individual and communal levels and recovery is a process that
With 43% of the population under 15 years, the educational and
employment prospects for the young are crucial for the future of
the Solomon’s. Without effort to support them, the capacity
for them to become disaffected and used by greedy and violent opportunists
remains. The education system must be supported to develop people’s
skills to contribute to their village community and broader society
to the best of their capacity.
Places like the Weathercoast still have many reconstruction issues.
Many struggle for the basics of life: clean water, adequate shelter
and nutritious food. The aid response has been sketchy. Places in
Northwest Malaita are in social and cultural transition adjusting
to the forced re-location of people from Guadalcanal. Subsistence
agriculture remains the principal means of livelihood for the majority
of the people and requires ongoing support. Some villages also have
mineral and other resources and communities may need the right advice
about how to negotiate these assets to ascertain the true will of
the people and avoid exploitation.
Many are deeply convinced that land is the issue that lies at the
heart of the country’s problems. It drove the last five years
of social unrest. In most cases it is much more than clarifying
land titles. The land underlies people’s collective identities
and is the principal source of livelihood and security. Most of
the population live off the land and sea resources. Registration
and commercialisation does not fit easily within traditional customary
understanding of the land. Many see the land as something that is
spiritual and part of their identity. However others see it as many
Westerners do – something that can make profit. The long term
issues of land reform and economic development remain.
RAMSI has been an experiment for the region. The 2000 Biketawa
Resolution of the 16 leaders of Pacific Islands Forum paved the
way for the Forum to facilitate active measures to assist in a member’s
troubles. Coups in Fiji, the Bougainville secessionist conflict,
systemic issues in Papua New Guinea attracted the concern of countries
in the region. Many features in the Solomon Islands are shared throughout
Pacific. These include the clash between traditional ways of life
and modernity, the way local group loyalties take precedence over
national interests, and the meager educational and health resources.
A lack of sustainable economic development will lead to further
The Solomon Islands had requested assistance since 1999 but it
was not until mid-2003 that Australia responded. The hurt and suffering
of the people of the Solomon Islands simply worsened over the four
years period before Australia finally responded. By then Australia
had intervened militarily in three other countries: East Timor,
Afghanistan and Iraq. The interventions into Afghanistan and Iraq
raised issues in terms of international law and military strategy.
Many were concerned that these seemed to be driven from Washington
rather than Canberra. Our role in East Timor, while well intentioned,
was not always well executed.
Any foreign intervention will attempt to balance national interests
and humanitarian motives. Australia’s eventual decision to
intervene in the Solomon Islands was made for Australia’s
own security and national interests as much as it was for humanitarian
concern for the people of the Solomons. A prime motivation for Australia’s
intervention was the fear of a “failing state” on our
doorstep. Australian analysts were concerned about the potential
for the Solomon Islands’ territories to become a haven for
terrorists, drug runners, people smugglers, etc. In recent years
these security issues and domestic budgetary targets have become
dominant criteria in shaping Australian foreign policy. International
solidarity within a community of nations would have Australia rely
more on humanitarian principles such as concern for a neighbour
urgently in need.
The process of rebuilding the institutions of government and of
economic reform in the Solomon Islands is a serious task. Australia
is important in the South Pacific and our involvement must be discerned
and well implemented. Much money was spent on the Australian defence
force in the Solomons last year. We hope that more can be given
to the Solomon Islanders for their development needs in the coming
years. The ‘development’ dollar is inevitably worth
more to the Solomon Islanders than the ‘defence’ dollar.
The Australian Prime Minister Howard promised, “RAMSI will
remain until the job is done”. Australia’s motive should
be that of one who seeks to serve rather than of one who wants to
rule, a genuine helpum fren. If it were otherwise, fears associated
with neo-cololonism become real indeed.
Amnesty International, 2004 Report, http://web.amnesty.org/report2004/slb-summary-eng
ABC Radio Australia, Asia Pacific, http://www.abc.net.au/ra/asiapac
ABC Asia Pacific, http://www.abcasiapacific.com
Asian Development Bank, http://www.adb.org/SolomonIslands
Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Our Failing Neighbour,”
Policy Report, June 2003, http://www.aspi.org.au/solomons
AusAID, Country Programs: Solomon Islands,
Australian Department of Defence, Operation Anode,
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,
Solomon Islands country profile, http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/solomon_islands
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,
RAMSI Press Conference: RAMSI’s objectives for 2004,
CIA World Factbook 2004, Solomon Islands,
Pacific Magazine, http://www.pacificmagazine.net
Peter Hosking interviews the Melanesian Brothers on the ABC Religion
Peter Hosking, “Recovering from Trauma in the Solomons,”
Jesuits Australia News, http://info.jesuit.org.au/info/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=129
Solomon Islands’ People First Network, http://www.peoplefirst.net.sb
ReliefWeb, Solomon Islands, http://www.reliefweb.int
Topix.net, Solomon Islands News, http://www.topix.net/world/solomon-islands
Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, Solomon Islands
UN Development Fund for Women, Solomon Islands country report,
The World Gazetteer, Solomon Islands, http://www.world-gazetteer.com/r/r_sb.htm
World Socialist Web Site, Analysis on the Solomon Islands,
The author: Peter Hosking SJ, a Jesuit priest and trauma counsellor,
spent 3 weeks on the Solomon Islands helping the Anglican Melanesian
Brothers deal with the continuing impact of the crisis, including
the murder of 7 of their members.
View on The Pacific is a publication of the Uniya Jesuit Social
Justice Centre, a research centre based in Sydney’s Kings
Cross, Australia. The views expressed in this report are those of
the author. Please email comments or corrections to Uniya:
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