x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Peace process arrives in Solomons

A truth and reconciliation commission is expected to begin hearing submissions in October in an attempt to heal tribal grievances.

The prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Derek Sikua, believes there can be lasting peace.
The prime minister of the Solomon Islands, Derek Sikua, believes there can be lasting peace.

CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA // The people of the Solomon Islands are preparing to confront one of the Pacific's most barbaric ethnic wars in a peace process inspired by post-apartheid South Africa. A truth and reconciliation commission is expected to begin hearing submissions in October in an attempt to heal tribal grievances that brought the Solomon Islands to near-collapse and prompted the intervention of Australian-led peacekeepers.

The inquiry is designed to help the troubled Melanesian archipelago of 600,000 people repair the damage caused by years of violence and corruption that flared in the late 1990s when rival militia groups fought over land rights, jobs and political power. Up to 300 islanders died and 10 per cent of the population were forced from their homes during a civil conflict that began when the Isatabu Freedom Movement, formed by indigenous residents of the main island of Guadalcanal, unleashed a vicious campaign of intimidation aimed at migrants from the neighbouring province of Malaita.

In response, the settlers established their own mini-army, the Malaita Eagle Force, and the Solomon Islands rapidly descended into the darkness of anarchy and economic disintegration. The force's fighters ousted the government in a coup in June 2000 and three years later Australia, worried about having a failed state on its doorstep, was invited by the islands' shattered political leadership to lead a regional rescue mission.

Hundreds of foreign troops and police officers from 15 countries were deployed and while law and order were quickly restored, the task of rebuilding a stricken nation is likely to take decades while inter-clan hostilities still fester. "There are still those tensions but that is what the government is taking steps to address through our truth and reconciliation commission," said Derek Sikua, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, during a visit to Cairns this month for a regional summit.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led efforts to safeguard human rights in South Africa, has endorsed a similar cleansing process in the Solomon Islands and visited the capital, Honiara, in April. "We were very fortunate that Desmond Tutu was able to accept my invitation to come and launch our truth and reconciliation commission. It worked really well for us and what he told us from the experience of South Africa has driven home in the minds of a lot of our people that there can be no lasting peace without knowing what the truth is and there can be no lasting peace without forgiveness," Mr Sikua said.

These plans to ease pressure in the former British colony, which is punctuated by rugged mountains and low-lying coral atolls, have the support of the secretary general of the Commonwealth. Speaking in Queensland en route to Honiara, Kamalesh Sharma said he was confident the Solomon Islands could flourish in the future. "You must begin with the position that there is no society which is intrinsically unstable to the point that nothing can be done about it. If that is your starting point then that really is a recipe for pessimism. We do believe that all states can find the core stability; social, political and economic partly through what they are doing themselves and partly the quality of support they are receiving from others."

Hundreds of former militants have been jailed for their part in the fighting and their reintegration into a more tolerant community is the key to lasting security, but the path towards reconciliation promises to be arduous, given the sheer cruelty inflicted during years of crisis. Some of the worst violence was perpetrated on the remote Weather Coast of Guadalcanal by a notorious warlord, Harold Keke, a former police officer who was implicated in dozens of killings.

"There is strong evidence that Keke suffers from mental illness. Certainly my own experience of visiting the Weather Coast indicates that he really did have a reign of terror," said Matthew Allen, a researcher at the Australian National University. "He would torture people, he would murder people and he has been convicted now on multiple life sentences. These were very brutal murders. "He would raze villages and he would force people to worship him in church. He declared at one stage Harold Day, which was the equivalent of the Sabbath."

The reconciliation inquiry hopes that traditional means of resolving disputes, such as compensation and apology, will be sufficient to exorcise the ghosts of the recent past, although chronic economic problems, notably the alarming decline of the logging industry, have added to the burdens that are weighing down this tropical corner of the South Pacific. In a land that is awash with culture and distinctive ethnic groups, where 85 different languages are spoken, true harmony may well be a distant dream, although Mr Sikua believes it is within his nation's grasp.

"Despite our diversity, despite the many languages we have, there is a real potential for us to be united as a country and to prosper in peace, to grow together as a people and to enjoy security and success." foreign.desk@thenational.ae