Sustainable peace

Jack Maebuta and Rebecca Spence

High-level nation-building efforts seem unlikely to bring durable peace at village level, at least until local reconciliation processes are respected and integrated into wider reconstruction efforts. 

A question many Solomon Islanders ask is, “What will happen if RAMSI [the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands] eventually leaves?” In a survey conducted in 2010, some 84 percent of respondents backed the presence of RAMSI, mostly attributing their support to the likelihood that, if the mission were to leave, there would be a breakdown in law and order. 

As if to underline these risks, when a new prime minister was elected by parliament on 16 November 2011, the result was met with mixed reactions from the public. A violent protest in Honiara claimed to represent the people’s wish for the immediate resignation of the newly elected premier. The demonstrations suggest that a sustainable peace in the Solomon Islands still remains a mission to be accomplished. 

RAMSI’s mandate focuses on maintaining law and order and a state-focused system that concentrates on bolstering the mechanisms of the government departments. While these approaches are necessary, a more organic, community-driven system that concentrates on healing tensions and bolstering intra-community relations as a tenet for sustainable peace needs to be supported. 

RAMSI has provided stability, increased access to justice, and mobilised the public service and government ministries. Elements of the government reform package have been greatly appreciated. Reforms of the financial system and particularly the tax system have renewed the flow of revenues, and ministries are once again able to deliver services. The worst criminal elements have been tried and sentenced, and the public has seen that justice has been done. 

However, initial enthusiasm is now tempered with confusion and disenchantment on several fronts. External reviews, such as those undertaken by the Pacific Island Forum Eminent Persons Group (EPG) in 2005 and Oxfam in 2006, suggest that Solomon Islanders wish to see the concept of peace and security enlarged to encompass the broader notion of human security. They call for RAMSI to achieve real progress in rebuilding the capacity of Solomon Islands institutions (based on an understanding of traditional structures) and tackle the persistent drivers of conflict and insecurity. Emphasis on law and order and the resultant court and prison sentences has interrupted necessary and ongoing reconciliation processes at inter- and intra-community levels.

The importance placed on the reformation of central government may in fact be misguided, as long as Solomon Islanders continue to show no loyalty to the idea of a nation state. The ongoing disconnect between RAMSI-bolstered national government approaches, processes and institutions and engagement with the rest of the community has resulted in a lack of coordination between efforts at the national and the village level, in terms of peace-building methods and service delivery. RAMSI also risks exacerbating conflict by privileging the Honiara area over other islands, by being insensitive to the importance of traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution, and by continuing to advise and direct long beyond the government’s tolerance of its presence. 

The EPG and Oxfam reviews called for a more balanced representation from a wider range of other Pacific nations in RAMSI. The main participants have always been Australia and New Zealand – they provide the overwhelming majority of defence, police and civilian personnel deployed in the Solomon Islands. Experience in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea suggests that participants from other Pacific island countries are more culturally sensitive, more effective at building trust leading to more successful outcomes. The legacy of colonisation and ongoing patronising attitudes are still very much felt in the region. To its credit, RAMSI has made some significant efforts to recruit personnel from other Pacific states. 

RAMSI’s attempts at nation building and government strengthening should be seen as a complementary approach that is not likely to bring peace at village level, because of the ways in which Solomon Islands society has functioned to date. Peace can ensue at the intra-community level only when local reconciliation processes have been enacted. 

Independent evaluations suggest some systemic change is occurring at the village level. Reconciliation efforts and concurrent socio-economic development activities are rehabilitating, revitalising, reconciling and reconfiguring communities and livelihoods, as well as strengthening those cultural, economic and political processes that work in the Solomon Islands. 

A key lesson arising from one recent case study is that, given the ongoing and historical absence of any form of nation building or national unity, the intra-communal and intra-village processes of reconciliation are as vital as the larger peacebuilding efforts. Thus the healing, restorative justice and peacemaking efforts practised at the village level, supported by infrastructural and community development activities, represent the most practical and successful approach, while government at the national level is still struggling to re-invent itself. Given the weakness of central government, the long-term sustainability of peace in the country remains a major challenge.

About the author:

Jack Maebuta, a Solomon Islands citizen, is a Pacific Islands Research Fellow at the Australian National University, Australia.
Rebecca Spence is the Director of Peaceworks, Australia


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