The Solomon Islands “Ethnic Tension” Conflict and the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Personal Reflection

By Terry Brown

To date there has been only one truth commission in Melanesia, in Solomon Islands. This was a mixed national-international commission, struck after an internal conflict within the country. At the time of the conflict, Canadian Anglican Terry Brown was the bishop of Malaita, a diocese of the Church of Melanesia. His chapter recounts the history of this conflict and the truth and reconciliation process that followed after a ceasefire agreement was finally reached. The commission’s report was secret until Brown published it online himself in order to ensure that its results were available to the public. His chapter tells this story and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Solomon Islands TRC final report, the silence from government and media that followed its release, and the value that still lies in the commission’s powerful final report.


(Excerpted from Bishop Brown’s chapter in Flowers in the Wall. Click here to download the entire chapter for free.)

… the greatest contribution of the Solomon Islands TRC is the very detailed documentation presented in the final report, especially the first three volumes, which cover the history of the conflict, the human rights abuses perpetrated in its course, and its sectoral impact, and present recommendations. These volumes are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the conflict and empathize with its victims. These volumes also provide a road map to future justice and reconciliation, including efforts aimed at addressing the needs of those whose lives were damaged or destroyed by the conflict. Unfortunately, only until very recently successive Solomon Islands governments have simply ignored the document. I have noted a couple reasons for this above, namely political embarrassment and government liability. However, there are other, more complex reasons, too.

One of the peculiarities of the Solomon Islands TRC process is the relatively long gap (for a TRC dealing with a contemporary rather than a historical conflict) between the formal resolution of the conflict (the signing of the TPA in 2000) and the inauguration of the TRC (with the passing of the TRC Act in 2008). Much happened in these eight years. The amnesty provision of the TPA provided only for death and injury between militants in direct conflict with one another, not for the killing of civilians or the commission of human rights abuses such as torture or sexual violence. RAMSI intervention included a major strengthening of the judiciary sector and ex-militants from all sides were charged with criminal offenses, from murder down, convicted and sent to prison. Others were arrested and remanded for many months until it was decided if there would be a criminal case. Likewise, church and traditional cultural practices of reconciliation, adhering to both church and local customs, took place across the country; led by church and parachurch organizations, such as Sycamore Tree Ministries (dedicated to reconciling convicted criminals and the victims of their crimes). Several former militants experienced religious conversion. After these civil, custom, and religious experiences of justice and reconciliation, ex-militants re-entered their communities, and some entered politics and were elected to parliament. Solomon Islands has always had a strong tradition of ex-prisoners re-entering their communities with good family and community support, and this was the case for those who were convicted of crimes connected with the “ethnic tensions.” …

Also frustrating is the fact that because of the government’s suppression of the report, followed by the legal limbo brought on by my informal digital release in April 2013, media in Solomon Islands has largely ignored it, probably fearing legal censure were they to reprint or quote it. It is also a very large document that needs condensation. While the report is freely available online, Internet service in the country is notoriously slow, unreliable, and expensive; to print a copy would be exorbitantly expensive; indeed, even downloading it is expensive. So the report is still not as freely accessible to the general population of Solomon Islands as one would like. Even parliament’s secretive tabling of the report in late 2014 was designed to ensure it did not become public. There is no indication that the online publication of the report has caused any civil disorder. Those who read it are often deeply moved by it and readers have written me to tell me they
read it with tears streaming down their cheeks.

Thus, I would argue that the final report remains the enduring monument of the Solomon Islands TRC. The first volume gives a nuanced and substantial account of the conflict and its root causes. The second volume details killings, abductions/detentions, torture/ill treatment, sexual violence, property violations, and forced displacement in all theatres of the conflict. The list of two hundred killed includes the victims’ names and personal details. The third volume details the impact of the conflict on women and children, the economic, health, and education sectors, details the exhumation program, and presents final recommendations. The fourth volume includes most of the transcripts of the public hearings, already
available on the TRC’s website (now defunct). The fifth volume contains an institutional history of the TRC, biographical details of the commissioners and senior staff, texts of the Townsville and Marau Peace Agreements and the TRC Act, as well as extensive compensation claims lists. Together, these documents are an invaluable record of the conflict. However, it is also
extremely painful reading and successive Solomon Islands governments have practiced avoidance, preferring instead to continue rewarding many of the perpetrators and ignoring the victims. However, I have hope that as the details included in the final report become more widely known, this situation will change. Editing the document immersed me in a pain that I still feel. Indeed, the chair of the TRC, Father Sam Ata, died in October 2014, partly from the stress of the work he pursued and the government’s refusal to publish or implement the report. The report is also his monument and that of many other faithful TRC workers.