Solomon Islands | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3.0

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3
Ratings Change: 


The Solomon Islands' political rights and civil liberties ratings both improved from 4 to 3 due to an improvement in the country's security situation.

Overview: 


The Solomon Islands continued to be plagued by lawlessness in some areas two years after a peace deal ended fighting between militias drawn from the South Pacific country's two largest ethnic groups. Many of the land issues said to be at the root of the conflict between the Malaitan and Guadalcanalese militias remain unresolved, while many rebels failed to turn in their weapons by the June 2002 deadline imposed by the peace deal. The instability has dealt a body blow to the nation's economy, as most export industries remain shuttered.

The Solomon Islands is a 900-mile archipelago of more than 27 islands about 1,200 miles northeast of Australia. Britain established a protectorate over the islands between 1893 and 1900 to stop the brutal practice of "blackbirding," or forced recruitment, of laborers to Fiji and Australia. U.S. and Japanese forces fought major land and sea battles in and around the Solomon Islands during World War II before American forces gained control of the territory. After the war, the British colonial rulers returned, and thousands of villagers from the poor, overcrowded island of Malaitae migrated in search of jobs to the more developed island of Guadalcanal. The national capital of Honiara, though located on Guadalcanal, became dominated by Malaitans. The Solomon Islands became self-governing in 1976 and independent two years later.

Since independence, the country's weak party system and the fluidity of its political coalitions have contributed to four changes of government through either parliamentary votes of no confidence or the resignation of the prime minister. Successive governments have largely failed to address long-standing claims by Guadalcanalese that migrants from Malaita and elsewhere have taken their jobs and land.

The recent conflict began in 1998 after armed groups on Guadalcanal began forcing Malaitan settlers out of rural parts of the island. The rebels killed scores of villagers and by 1999 forced some 15,000 to 20,000 Malaitans to flee to Honiara and to other islands. Honiara became a Malaitan enclave, cut off by roadblocks from rural areas controlled by Guadalcanalese militants. Drawing most of their several hundred fighters from impoverished villages along the rugged "Weather Coast" of southern Guadalcanal, the Guadalcanalese militant groups, equipped with stolen police guns, World War II weapons, and other arms, began calling themselves the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM).

By 1999, groups of armed Malaitans began fighting the IFM on Guadalcanal, later banding together as the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF). Armed with stolen police weapons, the MEF's several hundred fighters were drawn from displaced Malaitan settlers on Guadalcanal and the ranks of former and serving police officers. Malaitan attacks on rural areas of Guadalcanal forced up to 12,000 Guadalcanalese to flee to remote parts of the island.

Fighting escalated after MEF forces, backed by paramilitary police, seized control of Honiara in June 2000 and overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu. The conflict formally ended with an October 2000 peace accord, signed in Townsville, Australia, that called for both sides to surrender their weapons under the supervision of international monitors.

Elections in December 2001 restored a semblance of normalcy to the country. They brought to power a government headed by Sir Allan Kemakeza, who had been dismissed from the previous government over a financial scandal.

The Kemakeza government faces the tasks of restoring law and order to the two main islands and reviving the nation's economy. Having been largely disarmed following the 2000 coup, the police force is slowly being rebuilt with the help of trainers funded by Australia and New Zealand. International monitors overseeing the peace accord said that the June deadline to surrender arms in exchange for amnesty helped take many weapons out of circulation. Local militia leaders, however, continue to effectively control parts of Malaita and Guadalcanal, and former militants are widely believed to still hold several hundred weapons, many of them high-powered. After showing little discipline during the fighting, many ex-militants have turned to outright theft, robbery, extortion, and other crimes since the end of the conflict.

The Solomon Islands' economy is still buckling from the fighting, as many plantations and other export industries that shut down during the conflict remain closed. The loss of tax revenues from these industries has helped put the Kemakeza government in dire financial straits. Visiting Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer urged the government in December "to tackle the dire problems of lawlessness, corruption, and economic decline currently facing the country," according to a statement by his office.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Solomon Islanders can change their government through elections. Parliament consists of 50 members, drawn from single-seat districts, who are elected to 4-year terms. The country's human rights situation has improved markedly since the height of the conflict in 2000, when police and militants from both sides carried out killings, abductions, tortures, rapes, and other abuses while enriching themselves through looting and extortion. While many of the worst abuses have ended, however, "there were numerous reports of acts of torture and mistreatment attributed to both Malaitan and Guadalcanalese militants, and to members of the police," according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. Parliament in 2000 passed a blanket amnesty for virtually all crimes committed during the two-year conflict.

The judiciary is independent, although death threats against judges and prosecutors and a lack of resources have left the courts barely functioning at times, the U.S. State Department report said, forcing some suspects to spend long periods in detention while awaiting trial.

Given the country's high illiteracy rate and the remoteness of many islands, most Solomon Islanders get their news from radio. The main broadcaster, the state-run Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, generally offers balanced political coverage. Several private radio stations and newspapers also serve up news and entertainment. Militants at times threaten journalists, according to the U.S. State Department report.

Women are largely relegated to traditional family roles in this male-dominated society and hold relatively few positions of influence in government. Domestic violence against women appears to be common, and the government has done little to address the problem, the U.S. State Department report said. Sexual harassment is also a concern, the report added.

The cash-strapped government lacks sufficient resources to provide for many basic needs of children. Many schools are crumbling, teachers are not paid regularly, and, by some estimates, fewer than 60 percent of school-aged children have access to primary education. Religious freedom is respected in this mainly Christian country.

The National Union of Workers and other smaller trade unions are independent. The country's high unemployment rate, however, means that workers have little leverage to bargain for better pay, benefits, or working conditions. Only 10 to 15 percent of Solomon Islanders have wage or salary jobs, although 60 to 70 percent of these workers are unionized. The majority of Solomon Islanders work to some extent as subsistence farmers or fishermen.

Nongovernmental groups focus mainly on religious outreach or economic development. One of the few exceptions is Civil Society, a private group that criticizes and tries to expose alleged official corruption.