Truth and Reconciliation Commission Processes: Learning from the Solomon Islands

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Processes: Learning from the Solomon Islands

by Karen Brounéus

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786605672
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 11/27/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Karen Brounéus is Assistant Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.
Karen Brounéus is a clinical psychologist (Uppsala University, 1998) and PhD in Peace and Conflict Research (Uppsala University, 2008). Her research focuses on truth and reconciliation processes after civil war, and the psychological aspects of these processes. Other research interests and publications concern gender and armed conflict, the psychological health of soldiers returning from peace operations, using field experiments to evaluate inter-ethnic dialogue programs, and ethics in peace research. Her work has been published in journals such as Journal of Peace Research, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Security Dialogue, and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

Read an Excerpt



Mr. Stone Puia's story:

In June 2000 the sound of guns can be heard everywhere. All the expatriates were evacuated and because my partner was an expat she was also evacuated with our two children on Wednesday and I drove her to the International Airport. I was driving back to my home at White River when men with guns pulled me over and grabbed me out from the car and led me down to a check point at the White River area. I was led down while they shouted "We have caught a live pig." They questioned me in relation to an allegation that I was planning to establish a combatant group from Renbel Province to fight against the MEF.

— (Victim starts crying and could not finish his story) — Solomon Islands TRC Final Report, January 2012, Volume IV.

On March 9, 2010, the first hearings of the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were held at the Forum Fisheries Agency in Honiara. Twenty victims of the so-called Tensions were heard by the TRC on that first day, five women and fifteen men — one of whom was Mr. Stone Puia, quoted here. Initiated by the Churches of Solomon Islands, the TRC was mandated by a 2008 Act of the Solomon Islands Parliament to promote "national unity and reconciliation through the process of truth seeking" (Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report January 2012). The TRC's duty was to engage victims, perpetrators, and others in public and closed hearings to "discover the causes, details and effects of the country's 'ethnic tension' crisis of 1998–2003, which nearly destroyed the country, killed at least 200 persons, and adversely affected many thousands more" (Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report January 2012).

With the prominent South African TRC in 1995, led by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, TRCs have become exceedingly popular as a post-conflict peacebuilding tool. The South African TRC served as an extraordinary hope and inspiration to many post-conflict countries. Since the first TRC was created in Uganda in 1974, over forty TRCs have been established in post-conflict societies around the world — the vast majority of which have come to light after the South African TRC (Guthrey 2015). Hence, today, TRCs are an important tool in the standard practice transitional justice toolkit, applied in post-conflict peacebuilding worldwide (Subotic 2012).

What effect does a TRC process have on people's attitudes toward peace-building after armed conflict? One of the core underlying assumptions when engaging in a quest for "national unity and peace" through a truth commission is that hearing the truth of the past period of conflict and atrocity will lead to greater understanding between former enemies, and thereby to reconciliation and peace. If we see reconciliation as

a societal process that involves mutual acknowledgment of past suffering, and the changing of destructive attitudes and behaviour into constructive relationships toward sustainable peace (Brounéus 2003)

truth commissions may be a quintessential mechanism for facilitating such a process. That is, if truth telling leads to greater understanding and peaceful relationships, TRCs have a pivotal role to play in the process toward reconciliation and peace. Yet, we know little of their impact on peacebuilding at the micro-level over time. While important contributions have been made in recent years on truth commissions and their effect on, for example, durable peace and human rights at the global level (Lie et al. 2007; Snyder and Vinjamuri 2004; Wiebelhaus-Brahm 2010) and individual well-being and psychological health (Brounéus 2010; Byrne 2004; Guthrey 2015), no previous study has followed a TRC process over time aiming to study people's attitudes toward issues of relevance peace. To what extent does a TRC facilitate "unity and peace" at the grassroots level? By studying a TRC over time, we have the possibility to observe change. If we study such complex processes as a TRC at only one point — as a snapshot — we risk to miss important aspects, such as attitude change. A process of peacebuilding takes time, and will go through phases. Hence, by following a TRC process over time, we gain perspective, and depth.

Also, peacebuilding depends on people at the grassroots level. It is therefore important to know in what ways hearing truths of the past conflict helps or hinders peacebuilding at the grassroots level. Do victim testimonies help heal the wounds of the past, or do they spur feelings of revenge? Is it easier to live together with ex-combatants and perpetrators after hearing their stories? Considering the financial and personal resources invested into TRC processes, it is important that we increase our understanding of how they affect people's experiences of peacebuilding in everyday life and attitudes to peace.

The Solomon Islands TRC process provided an important opportunity to learn more. First and foremost for the Solomon Islands itself — to see how people on the ground experienced the country's own TRC process. Every case of a TRC is unique — the past conflict, culture, and context will always differ — but from unique places, there may also be lessons of potential promises and pitfalls to be gained for other post-conflict countries. Further, the case of the Solomon Islands was of particular interest for a study such as this: compared to other post-conflict countries in the world, it is a relatively small country which experienced a relatively small conflict, and which initiated — from within — a TRC. These factors are quite ideal for a TRC to have the intended effects of truth, reconciliation, and peace. It should therefore, theoretically, be a case where it would be easier to observe change. Considering the enormous complexity of social science research — in that we do not study phenomena in a laboratory but in real life — these are important aspects. If we can learn what went well and what was challenging in a small place, we can bring this learning to test in other places as well. In this way, lessons from different TRCs across the world — large and small — can be accumulated and shared. With studies such as this, our understanding of TRC processes may increase — generating knowledge that can help other peacebuilding processes around the world as well.


One of the core underlying assumptions when establishing a TRC in a post-conflict country is that the truth will heal. That is, that hearing the truth of the past period of conflict and atrocity will summon greater understanding between former enemies, and thereby lead to healing, reconciliation, and peace. However, as mentioned earlier, we know little yet of the impact of TRCs on peacebuilding at the grassroots level, particularly over time. This study is the first to follow a TRC process over time, aiming to study people's attitudes toward issues of relevance peace. To what extent does a TRC facilitate unity and peace at the grassroots level? The present project was embarked upon to try to shed light on these issues. With the aim to try to capture the effects of the Solomon Islands TRC on people's attitudes over time toward peace, surveys and focus groups were conducted in 2011, when the TRC was still in operation, and in 2013, when the TRC had concluded its work and submitted its Final report. At both points in time, approximately 900 women and men in the Solomon Islands on the two main islands, Guadalcanal and Malaita, were interviewed for the survey. In 2011, seven focus groups were conducted, and in 2013, twelve focus groups were done. Each focus group consisted of 6–8 participants, so in total around 110 Solomon Islanders participated in the focus group interviews. During these years, I also conducted in-depth interviews with five ex-combatants who had witnessed in the TRC. I interviewed them about their experiences of witnessing in the TRC, and why they had chosen to witness. By collecting information at these three different levels of analysis, my aim was to gain a more thorough, multifaceted understanding of the complex processes of truth telling and peacebuilding in the Solomon Islands.

More specifically, my research question for the project was: How does the Solomon Islands TRC process affect women's and men's attitudes toward peace, trust, and coexistence, and their experience of security? In surveys, focus groups, and in-depth interviews, participants were asked questions about trust, coexistence, and the reintegration of ex-combatants. We also asked questions about experiences of the Tensions and psychological health, in order to understand how war-related trauma, psychological health, and attitudes toward peacebuilding may be linked, and what challenges people face.

Again building on previous research, we wanted to ask how women and men, respectively, experienced the TRC process. War affects men and women differently (Jones 2000; MacKinnon 2005). More men are killed in war, while women are more often subjected to nonlethal forms of violence such as sexual violence, or being forced to see family members being killed (Human Security Report 2005). Therefore, in the post-conflict period, women and men both carry heavy, but different, burdens of war-related trauma and memories, which in turn may lead to particular challenges in the post-conflict peacebuilding phase. Might these different experiences among women and men lead to different attitudes toward peace? Through improved knowledge of these challenges, measures can be taken to ease difficulties. In chapter 2, the theory guiding these research questions and the accompanying expectations will be presented. First, however, a short background to the case study at hand: the Solomon Islands.


The Solomon Islands is a small island nation in Melanesia, northeast of Australia, consisting of around 900 islands and atolls, an extraordinarily ethnically fragmented population of around 580,000 people who speak one or several of the around seventy languages. The wantok system — the Solomon Islands Pijin word for one talk or clan — overrides any other political system. Loyalty is to the wantok — historically and up until today, there is very little sense of nationhood.

The ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands broke out in 1998 when young Guadalcanal combatants terrorized, raped, and forced thousands of Malaitans from their Guadalcanal homes, in response to which young Malaitan combatants took to arms (Bennett 2002; Dinnen 2009; Kabutaulaka 2002). Five years of low-intensity civil war had begun, which would see severe violence, around 100 people killed, the displacement of over 20,000 people, and a coup d'état, until it formally ended with the entrance of an invited external intervention led by Australia in 2003, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) (Fry and Kabutaulaka 2008; Moore 2004). The roots of the conflict lie both in immediate precipitating political and regional causes, and in deep-lying historical, social, and postcolonial legacies (Bennett 2002; Hameiri 2009; Kabutaulaka 2002; Moore 2004).

It has been argued that socioeconomic inequalities, disproportionate development, and political and land controversy were among the most important factors for the armed conflict (Allen et al. 2013; Vella 2014). After World War II, the Solomon Islands capital was moved from Tulagi to Honiara, Guadalcanal. An unequal distribution of wealth and local resources left over from a colonial past meant the island of Guadalcanal had the most economic activity. Because of the economic and job opportunities this created, migration to Guadalcanal led to illegal squatting and seemingly exploitative measures by non-Guadalcanal people (Maebuta 2012). This strong influx of people from the island of Malaita led to strained relations between the Guale people of Honiara and Malaitans. By 1998, the feelings of resentment felt by the people of Guadalcanal had been articulated into formal demands of the government, which were not adequately dealt with, further inciting feelings of grievance and ultimately violent conflict (Maebuta 2012).

As the population in and around Honiara began to expand, so too did tensions between Malaitans and Guales. Intermarriages between Guales and Malaitans led to complexities in land acquisition: Guale land acquisition is matrilineal, while Malaitan acquisition is patrilineal, thus giving Malaitan men marrying Guale women the right to land in both Malaita and Guadalcanal, while Guale men are left with fewer women and less land (Braithwaite et al. 2010). This factor contributed to the discontentment of many people of Guadalcanal, who were forced to give up claims to land they believed to be theirs.

The conflict had a profound impact on the small island nation, not least on its women (Corrin 2008; Leslie 2000; Leslie and Boso 2003). Gender-based violence against women and girls was entrenched in the conduct of militias of both sides during the conflict (Amnesty International 2004; Corrin 2008); rape was one of the most common forms of violence and was committed as a form of retaliation by rival forces (Leslie and Boso 2003). But women also played a central role as peacemakers in the Solomon Islands, organizing the Women for Peace movement, moving between the armed groups and walking into their camps, persuading the men to lay down their arms (Rolls 2006). Yet, they were excluded from the official negotiations that eventually led to the Townsville Peace Agreement (TPA), signed on October 15, 2000 (Leslie 2000; Rolls 2006).


Upon the request of the Solomon Islands government, RAMSI began peacekeeping operations in the Solomon Islands in July 2003, signaling the end of the tensions (Jeffery 2013). The TPA had been unsuccessful: violence had continued in the Solomon Islands, no longer as interethnic tensions but as intra-ethnic violence, the conflict had "[disintegrated] into a plethora of individual criminal acts" (Jeffery 2017; TRC Final Report 2012: 95). RAMSI played an important role in restoring internal law and order to the Solomon Islands, "Of all the peace initiatives undertaken, this was the one that hastened the return of the rule of law" (Maebuta 2012). The Australian-led operation was a "much more systematically prosecutorial approach than in any other peace operation we know. Some 6,300 Solomon Islanders were arrested, many on multiple charges" (Braithwaite and Nickson 2012). From the time the conflict ended, "The number of arrests and incarcerations per capita, more so per conflict death, exceeds that in any case of post-conflict justice the authors know" (Braithwaite and Nickson 2012).

Apart from this criticism of its propensity for incarceration, RAMSI was lauded for its intervention. Yet over time, RAMSI became increasingly criticized for not having a clear exit strategy, and for having taken over much of the state bureaucracy and security sector instead of building local capacity in such fundamental sectors of society (Allen 2009; Hameiri 2007). The fear was that this would backfire as it did after independence from British colonialism, when Solomon Islanders were left to run a foreign-built state system without any training, which — combined with the traditional system of wantokism and big men — became an implosive cocktail. However, after ten years, RAMSI withdrew its military contingent in 2013 after which it continued as a policing mission for another four years (Guthrey and Brounéus 2017). RAMSI officially ended its mission in the Solomon Islands on June 30, 2017.

A truth and reconciliation commission was first proposed by the Churches of Solomon Islands in 2000 (Vella 2014). However, RAMSI's mandate did not include peacebuilding or reconciliation, and without the backing of RAMSI, these processes were pushed off the development agenda (Vella 2014). Nevertheless, community demand eventually resulted in the Solomon Island's Parliament passing an act in August 2008, to set up the TRC. Donor funds from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) were made available to support the TRC process (Braithwaite and Nickson 2012). According to its mandate, the TRC was to investigate the events that took place during the civil strife between January 1, 1998, and July 23, 2003. It did not have the aim to prosecute or name perpetrators. There was already an amnesty in place for the crimes that had occurred in this time period, and the TRC Act was very clear in stating that "the commission is not intended to affect criminal accountability" (Hayner 2011; Vella 2014).


Excerpted from "Truth and Reconciliation Commission Processes"
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: TRCs, War-related Trauma and Attitudes towards Peace

Chapter 3: The Solomon Islanders in this Study

Chapter 4: Respect, Discrimination and Trust

Chapter 5: The TRC Process: A Drop in Confidence and the Lack of Kastom

Chapter 6: Coexistence and Feelings Towards Ex-combatants

Chapter 7: Wrapping Up and Looking Ahead: Designing TRCs for Peace


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