30 November 2004 |

Restoration of law and order allows for the return of the displaced

In spite of a peace agreement in 2000, ending the civil war which forcibly displaced nearly ten per cent of the population of the Solomon Islands, a general climate of instability and insecurity has continued to prevail in many areas of the country, particularly on Guadalcanal, the country’s main island. Although the majority of the over 30,000 people displaced by the fighting have now returned home, the ethnic conflict, which erupted in 1998 between the Malaitans and the Guadalcanalese has left an uneasy legacy. This has been compounded by a sharp economic decline, high unemployment and a lack of basic services for the majority of the population. In a new outbreak of violence in the summer of 2003, over 1,500 people were displaced on Guadalcanal by a violent campaign of intimidation led by militants commanded by warlord Harold Keke. The intervention of an Australian-led regional force (RAMSI) in July 2003 to restore law and order in the country improved the humanitarian conditions of the displaced and rapidly allowed for the return of all IDPs. It is hoped that the presence of the intervention forces will now pave the way for to the country’s economic and social rehabilitation. Central to this process will be the establishment of long-term development plan which addresses the underlying causes of the conflict.

Background 

Although often characterised as “ethnic” or “tribal”, the conflict in the Solomon Islands is the result of power struggles for control of the state, acute land disputes, and the incapacity of a corrupted State to provide basic services for the mostly rural population. Following the end of World War II, Malaitans originating from neighbouring Malaita Island migrated in large numbers to Honiara, the capital city, where most employment opportunities were to be found. They have since come to dominate Honiara as a political and economic force, resulting in strong resentment by local Guadalcanalese. 

Following an outbreak of inter-ethnic violence between Malaitan and Guadalcanal communities on the main island of Guadalcanal in 1998-1999, between 30,000 and 35,000 persons were forced from their homes. During this time, an estimated 24,000 Malaitans fled to Honiara, while some 11,000 Guadalcanalese fled from the capital and the coast to the interior of the island (Schoorl and Friesen, 2002). By the end of 1999, the majority of displaced Malaitans had opted to return to their home island of Malaita. Of those who chose to settle in Honiara, some joined the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF), a militant group formed to counter attacks by the Guadalacanalese Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) against the Malaitan population (John Roughan, October 2000, p 7). 

The conflict worsened in June 2000 resulting in the overthrow of the government by the MEF, reportedly assisted by paramilitary police officers. An increase in fighting immediately followed, displacing an additional 3,000 persons in rural Guadalcanal by the end of the year. 

The Townsville Peace Agreement, signed in October 2000 under the auspices of Australia, has put an end to the full-scale civil war, but the agreement has proven ineffective in ensuring a complete demilitarisation of the country and a secure environment for the population. Many of its provisions including the handing in of weapons and the compensation to the displaced for lost or damaged property were never fully implemented and an amnesty granted to militants on both sides contributed to creating a climate of impunity. 

Although the judiciary is independent, it has since been hampered by police ineffectiveness, lack of resources, and threats against judges and prosecutors. Since 2000, the police force has become factionalized and has not functioned as an effective institution (US DOS 25 February 2004). During 2001, some 2,000 former militants and paramilitary police officers were incorporated into the police force as “Special Constables”. The high number of Special Constables put a strain on the finances of the state at a time when civil servants like teachers and doctors did not get any salaries. In addition, instead of helping to solve law and order problems many Special Constables became involved in criminal activities, including extortion, robbery, vehicle theft, intimidation, and fraud (US DOS 4 March 2002). 

In late 2001, a new government was elected, but high levels of corruption, particularly centred on the distribution of Taiwanese funded compensation to displaced Malaitans and a deteriorating law and order situation meant that peace remained fragile (CHR 5 May 2003, p. 18). While as of the end of 2002, the estimated 30,000 people displaced by the civil war had returned home (USCR June 2003), many had not been compensated for the loss of property and homes because of the state’s financial constraints and the misuse of compensation funds. Furthermore, austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund and donor countries at the end of 2002 led the government to retrench about 30 per cent of the public sector workforce and to halt the compensation payment made to people affected by the civil war (Peter Byrne 21 November 2002). 

Lawlessness continued to prevail in many areas of the country, namely on the Weathercoast, a no-go zone on the southern coast of Guadalcanal and home to Guadalcanalese militant groups who had refused to accept the peace agreement. While some 2,000 weapons have been collected and destroyed two years after the conflict, hundreds of high-powered guns remained in the hands of former militants contributing to a climate of social unrest and insecurity (Alpers and Twyford March 2003, p. 100). 

Over 1,500 people displaced by violence in 2003 

During 2003, there was a sharp increase in crime rates and ethnic clashes. In Honiara, former militants, many of whom had been absorbed into the “Special Constables” unit, were responsible for a wave of violence directed against the government and citizens. In the countryside, Harold Keke – a Guadalcanalese militant leader who had refused to sign the peace agreement – and his followers were responsible for many killings, abductions and burning of villages.

In the summer of 2003, some 1,500 people fled the Weathercoast escaping acts of terror and violence committed by the militants and sought refuge in and around the capital Honiara. Many IDPs had to walk for a week across the island to reach the capital, sleeping in the jungle without shelter, food and health assistance. Other displaced people reportedly took refuge in the area surrounding the Weathercoast (WV 7 August 2003). 

Most IDPs were forced to live under plastic sheetings at Tintinge, outside Honiara, lacking basic services, such as potable water, proper sanitation, or access to health care. With high temperatures and humidity, some children had contracted malaria (WV 12 August 2003). Psychological problems were also reported among IDPs, especially children, forced to witness abductions, rapes and the beating of relatives by Harold Keke’s militants. 

Return and resettlement: returnees need assistance 

A 2,000 strong Australia-led Regional Assistance Force to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was deployed at the end of July 2003 with the official mandate “to reinforce and uphold the legitimate institutions and authorities in Solomon Islands, and ensure respect for the Constitution and implementation of the laws” (Government of Australia 25 August 2003). In a matter of months the law and order situation greatly improved. Many militant leaders suspected of human rights abuses and criminal acts were imprisoned and their followers disarmed. 

By mid-March 2004, all the people displaced during the previous year had been able to return home under the protection of foreign military force (People First Network 18 March 2004). 

Seven organized return and resettlement movements took place between December and mid-March with the support from UNDP and AusAID. The returning IDPs were provided with a resettlement assistance package comprising transportation; a family assistance package (farming inputs/tools, fishing gear and plastic sheeting); and food (UNDP 2 March 2004). Security for returning villagers has been provided by the deployment of RAMSI military personnel in areas of return. A multi-national Participating Police Force (PPF) will now ensure continued security in the area (People First Network 18 March 2004). 

Preliminary findings of a monitoring mission on the conditions in areas of resettlement conducted in early March 2004 suggest that much assistance will be needed to guarantee a return in safety and dignity. Most of the returnees have found their homes and community infrastructure destroyed and they have to live in makeshift shelter covered by tarpaulin. Sanitary conditions are poor or non-existent. Health clinics are very few and lack basic medicine. Although many of those who returned in December 2003 have exhausted their three-month food rations, coping mechanisms on food security appeared to be fairly effective. Many families have engaged in small gardening, although the crops will only be due for harvesting in May-June 2004.

Assistance projects are most needed in the field of reconciliation and peace-building activities, shelter, food security and rehabilitation of community infrastructure. The mission also pointed out that inter-agency communication needed to be improved and coordination strengthened. Moreover, there seemed to be a shortage of expertise and awareness on IDP protection issues among field level staff (UNDP 12 March 2004). 

National and international assistance 

In response to the recent displacement crisis, in June 2003, the government established an IDP Coordination Committee with the mandate to provide coordination of humanitarian aid. Chaired by the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), the IDP Committee consisted of the Guadalcanal Provincial Government, National Peace Council, World Vision, Red Cross, Oxfam, the Solomon Islands Christian Association (SICA) and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). The Red Cross, the Guadalcanal government and the NDMO have conducted assessments and reported regularly to the IDP Committee (World Vision 7 August 2003). Following the intervention of RAMSI and the improvement of the situation in the areas of displacement, the IDP Committee was transformed into an IDP Resettlement Committee (IDPRC) and tasked with coordinating efforts in the development and implementation of an IDP resettlement strategy (UNDP 2 March 2004). 

In addition to the assistance provided by aid agencies the displaced could also count on the social safety net of the “wantok” system, a traditional support system based on reciprocity within the extended family. Businesses, churches and individuals were also mobilized to collect funds, food and non-food items to assist the displaced (Pacific Islands Report 21 July 2003) 

The National Peace Council (NPC) established in October 2002 and supported by the Australian government and UNDP, has been involved in peace-building and reconciliation activities. This includes a “Weapons Free Village” campaign, encouraging and facilitating weapons surrender and consultation with national and provincial governments and women's and youth groups (Government of Australia 1 August 2003).

Under the UN Resident Coordinator's Office, UNDP has coordinated humanitarian assistance during the emergency phase and has engaged in post-conflict peace-building and rehabilitation processes. In 2001, the Community Reconciliation and Reintegration Programme (CRRP) was designed by UNDP with assistance from AusAID. The programme included assistance to conflict-affected groups in their resettlement and socio-economic reintegration into society. Australia’s contribution to the Programme is expected to reach $21 million by the end of 2004 (AusAID 1 August 2003). From July 2002 until the end of 2003, UNDP has implemented a project supporting the demobilization of Special Constables. Within a year, close to half of the Special Constables were demobilised and provided with assistance to set up alternative income-generating activities (UNDP 24 February 2003). 

The key foreign actors involved in the assistance to the Solomon Islands are Australia and New Zealand. Both countries were the main contributors to the regional force and have also committed to extend their assistance to aid projects designed to rebuild and rehabilitate the country. A number of international NGOs are also present in the country and are involved in various humanitarian and development projects. The Regional Assistance Force will engage in three core activities: economic reform, the machinery of government, and accountability and law and justice (Government of Australia 16 February 2004). Other countries and institutions contributing to the assistance include Taiwan, Japan, the United Nations, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank. 

Insofar as RAMSI’s mandate was to restore law and order, the intervention can be viewed as a success. Militias have been disarmed, their leaders imprisoned and all of those displaced in 2003 have been able to return home. However, economic reforms pushed for by donor countries and the cutting-down of public spending run the risk of creating further frustration among a population highly dependent on public sector employment. Aid should be focused on alleviating poverty, promote sustainable development and restore the country's education and health infrastructure.