Freedom in the World
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A peace agreement signed in October 2000 appeared to falter in April 2001 when it became clear that the illegal paramilitary Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) was failing to disarm consistently. In June, during a serious outbreak of armed violence, several peace monitors were fired upon and gunmen attempted to assassinate the leader of Guadalcanal province. Parliamentary elections held on December 5 resulted in defeat for the ruling People's Progressive Party. In mid-December, Sir Allan Kemakaza was chosen by parliament as the new prime minister. However, donor concerns regarding corruption and economic instability were heightened by the fact that Kemakaza had been dismissed as deputy prime minister earlier in the year amid allegations of financial impropriety.
The Solomon Islands, a twin chain of islands stretching nearly 900 miles in the western Pacific, became a British protectorate in the late 1800s and an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1978. Politics in this parliamentary system is characterized by frequently shifting partisan loyalties. In August 1997, Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, head of the Alliance for Change and its dominant Solomon Islands Liberal Party, was elected prime minister. Pledges to implement reforms to end government corruption and mismanagement won his government critical support from foreign banks and aid donors.
Long-standing ethnic tensions between the Gwale people, who are natives of the island of Guadalcanal, and those from the island of Malaita (60 miles away) worsened in January 1999, when Ezekiel Alebua, premier of Guadalcanal, asked the government to pay his province for hosting the capital, Honiara, and suggested that people from outside the province should not be allowed to own land there. The Gwale majority has long complained that migrants from elsewhere in the Solomon Islands are taking local jobs and land. Fighting broke out in June 1999 when militants of the Gwale-dominated Istambu Freedom Movement (IFM) struck in the countryside and then moved into Honiara.
The government declared a state of emergency, and Alebua called for a media ban on statements about the ethnic unrest in his province. In July 1999, the conflict ended with the signing of the Honiara peace accord. Under the agreement, the militants agreed to disarm in return for an official review to ensure "even development" throughout the islands. However, the peace process failed, and violence continued in the year 2000. An estimated 200 people have been killed and 30,000 have become refugees as a result of the conflict.
In June 2000, an MEF-led coup took over the capital, Honiara, and captured Prime Minister Ulufa'alu, who was then forced to resign. Opposition leader Manassah Sogavare was narrowly elected as the new prime minister in an emergency vote held on June 30. To bring the MEF to the negotiating table, the new government paid $1.6 million in compensation for lost land and damaged property suffered by the Malaitans. Following this, the Townsville Peace Agreement was signed in Australia on October 14, 2000; it included provisions for laying down arms and establishing an international ceasefire monitoring group. However, peace remained tenuous and the police were unable to bring law and order back to Honiara. To consolidate the peace process, premiers of the various provinces met to consider implementing a federal system. In December 2000, a blanket amnesty law for virtually all crimes committed during the two-year ethnic conflict was rushed through parliament.
The breakdown of the two former militant groups has hindered the implementation of the disarmament process, with an estimated 500 high-powered weapons still to be recovered. Citing financial hardship, the government in August refused further demands from former militants for monetary compensation. The slaying of a prominent militant leader led the IFM to withdraw from a planned peace review in September.
The conflict has crippled the island's economy as well as affecting international commerce for other countries in the region. Guadalcanal island has the country's only international airport and its two international seaports, which are regional transport hubs. Business declined as much as 50 percent as a result of the violence, and the once-flourishing export sector has disintegrated. In addition, political instability has reduced government revenue by around 60 percent, leading to an accumulation of both domestic and international debt. Desperate for new funds, Sogavare had sought additional assistance from Taiwan, even threatening to switch official diplomatic recognition to China.
Citizens of the Solomon Islands can change their government democratically. Under the 1977 constitution, the 50-member unicameral parliament is directly elected for a four-year term. Executive power is vested in a prime minister and cabinet, and a governor-general serves as head of state. Traditional chiefs wield formal authority in local government. Party affiliations are weak and based largely on personal loyalties. In December, a total of 328 candidates from seven political parties stood for parliamentary seats in elections that were judged free and fair by international observers.
The judiciary is independent, and procedural safeguards are adequate, with a right of ultimate appeal in certain circumstances to the Privy Council in London. The constitution provides for an ombudsman's office to investigate claims of unfair treatment by the authorities, but its effectiveness is limited in practice by a lack of resources. During the conflict, some members of the 900-strong police force participated in torture, extrajudicial killings, and other violence against civilians. More than 100 officers who joined the MEF during the June 2000 coup have been reinstated in the police service without being held accountable for abuses they may have committed as MEF members. Since the coup, the police force has not functioned as an effective institution.
The country's three private newspapers vigorously criticize government policies, but have limited circulation outside the towns. There is a private FM radio station, but the radio service of the state-owned Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation is the most important source of information and generally offers diverse viewpoints. Curbs on the media were imposed during the state of emergency in Guadalcanal in 1999, and the government was slow in lifting them even after ending the emergency. In March 2001, a spokesman for the prime minister said the government believed in and advocated freedom of the media. However, he also warned media organizations to be mindful of their reporting and professional in their duties. In September, the British government funded a media workshop on election reporting.
Religious freedom is respected in this predominantly Christian country. Freedom of assembly is also respected in practice. Although public assembly requires a government permit, none have been denied for political reasons. Bans on militant groups were announced by the government in 1999 and 2000, but were later suspended. In June, police fired tear gas into a civilian crowd at a show held to promote peace in Honiara.
The law recognizes the right of workers to form and join unions and to strike. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of the population is employed in the wage economy, and about 60 to 70 percent of those are organized in trade unions. Unions frequently exercise their right to bargain collectively. In August, a planned strike action by members of various public sector unions whose salaries had not been paid was called off.
Women face discrimination in education and employment opportunities, and are underrepresented in government and politics. Critics have demanded greater government efforts to address domestic violence, and as a result of the breakdown in law and order since 1998, women have become particularly vulnerable to rape and other forms of violence.