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The Australia-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was deemed a success in 2004 in helping to restore peace and stability to this war-torn island state. Meanwhile, several individuals implicated in the coup of 2000, as well as high-ranking officials alleged to have abused their powers, were arrested and brought to trial during the year.
The Solomon Islands, which consists of more than 27 islands and 70 language groups, gained independence in 1978 after having been a protectorate of the United Kingdom. Clan identity remains much stronger than national identity and is a deep source of ethnic rivalry. Tensions between the two largest groups - the Guadalcanalese, natives of the main island of Gaudalcanal, and the Malaitans, who come from the nearby province of Malaita - over jobs and land rights erupted into open warfare in 1998. The Isatambu Freedom Movement (IFM), claiming to represent native Guadalcanalese interests, forced the eviction of 30,000 Malaitans from Guadalcanal. Scores were injured or killed in the fighting that ensued between the IFM and the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF), a band of armed Malaitans.
Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, a Malaitan, was taken hostage in June 2000 by the MEF, which seized control of the capital, Honiara. Ulufa'alu was forced to resign and was replaced by Manasseh Sogavare. Fighting officially ended with the Townsville Peace Agreement of October 2000, which was brokered by Australia and New Zealand. The agreement provides for the "restructure of the police force, a weapons amnesty, and reconciliation." Both countries sent unarmed peacekeepers to supervise the collection of arms, many of which had been brought in from Bougainville in Papua New Guinea after civil violence ended there in 1998. However, a group of Malaitan militants rejected the peace treaty, and under its leader, Harold Keke, killed 50 people and burned entire villages in the Weather Coast region of Guadalcanal. Armed gangs terrorized other parts of the country, including the capital, eventually forcing the government to leave Honiara. Parliamentary elections in December 2001 brought a new government to power under Sir Allan Kemakeza.
Under RAMSI auspices, Australia and New Zealand have sent millions of dollars and some 2,000 personnel (200 police, 200 military, and 1,500 support staff) to assist the Solomon Islands in its recovery. The Australian-led program, also known as "Operation Help a Friend," was approved by Honiara in July 2003 and endorsed by the United Nations the following month. RAMSI continued where a UN mission left off in June 2003; the first personnel arrived on Guadalcanal Island on July 23. The goal is to help local police regain control and to help government structures and legal systems operate effectively. In December, 232 people returned to their village on the remote Weather Coast region of Guadalcanal; about 1,600 had fled the area at the height of the civil unrest in 1998.
Prime Minister Kemakeza has been waging an enormous uphill battle to reform government and rebuild institutions paralyzed by violence. In 2004, the country remained in dire financial straits, and pay was suspended for government employees for several months. Donors have been pressing the government to reform its police and judiciary and improve transparency to curb endemic corruption. Change has been slow, but some important progress was made in 2004. Several leaders of the civil war and rebels against the government were arrested and brought to trial during the year. Among these were Andrew Te'e, who was supreme commander of the IFM, Harold Keke of the Guadacanal Liberation Front, and Simon Mani, a leader of the MEF. Several senior officials also have been arrested and charged for their alleged crimes.
In May, the national parliament was called for the first time since the rebel coup took the capital in June 2000. Opposition leader John Garo joined the government of Prime Minister Kemakeza as the new Minister of State following a cabinet shuffle in June, and Nathaniel Waena, a parliament member, succeeded Sir John Ini Lapli as the new governor-general.
RAMSI marked its first anniversary on July 24, 2004, and the operation was deemed to have been a success in restoring stability and peace to the country. However, this situation is by no means permanent, and as a follow up action to RAMSI, Australia sent 1,700 military personnel to provide police training and support. Improved conditions quickly reduced the number of Australian troops, but about 100 remained by the end of August to head police forces in several provinces until Solomon Island police are ready to resume authority.
Citizens of the Solomon Islands can change their government democratically. The country is a member of the Commonwealth, and the British monarch is the nominal head of state, represented by a governor-general who is chosen by parliament for a five-year term. Nathaniel Waena, the current governor-general, was elected to this office in July 2004. The government is a modified parliamentary system with a 50-member, single-chamber Legislative Assembly; members are elected for four-year terms. A parliamentary majority elects the prime minister, who appoints his own cabinet.
The leading political parties are the People's Alliance Party, led by Kemakeza, and the Solomon Islands Alliance for Change Coalition, headed by Ulufa'alu. Each holds 40 percent of the seats in parliament. However, politics in the Solomon Islands are driven less by parties than personalities, and there are frequent changes to party affiliations and alliances.
Corruption is a serious problem, resulting in public dissatisfaction and significant economic harm. Many and consistent allegations of official corruption and abuses of power have tied politicians and government officials to logging contracts, licensing, and public contracts, among other activities. Petty corruption among the lower ranks of government officials also appears widespread. Government efforts at reform and improved transparency have not occurred.
Freedom of expression and of the press is generally respected in practice. Reports on corruption and abuses by police and politicians appear in the local media. Those charged with wrongdoing sometimes use legal and extralegal means to intimidate journalists, but the government generally leaves matters to the courts for adjudication. Internet access is low, mainly because of the lack of telecommunications infrastructure and prohibitive costs.
Freedom of religion is generally respected in practice. Academic freedom is also respected despite serious disruptions in instruction and research as a result of the recent violence and a lack of government funding.
Many civil society groups operated freely, with the largest numbers of groups promoting development and religion. The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and the government generally recognizes this right. Laws require organizers of demonstrations to obtain permits, which are typically granted. Workers are free to organize, and strikes are permitted. Wage earners represent 10 to 15 percent of the workforce; the rest engage in subsistence farming and fishing.
Threats against judges and prosecutors have weakened the independence and rigor of the judiciary. Judges and prosecutors have also been implicated in corruption and abuse scandals. In October, the chief justice was dismissed for alleged misconduct. A lack of resources limits the government's ability to provide legal counsel and timely prosecutions and trials. Traditional chiefs have asked the government to provide more funds to rural, traditional courts to ease demand on the formal court system. Nevertheless, some important rulings were handed down in 2004: a cabinet member was sentenced to three years in prison for extorting money from a local newspaper, a deputy police commissioner was charged with facilitating false claims and abuse of office, and a former police superintendent was found guilty of larceny, assault, intimidation, and extortion.
The constitution provides for an ombudsman, with the power to subpoena and investigate complaints of official abuse, mistreatment, or unfair treatment. The ombudsman's office has potentially far-reaching powers but is limited by a lack of resources.
Law enforcement relies on a civilian-controlled police force of about a thousand persons, and there is no army. Factional and ethnic rivalries within the police since the 2000 coup have rendered the police virtually useless. Many Malaitan officers joined the MEF, and the hiring of about 1,200 untrained former militants as "special constables" to stop fighting also caused problems. Several of these former militants and the paramilitary Police Field Force were implicated in criminal activities. When the police chief attempted to demobilize 800 of the special police in 2003, about 300 of them protested to demand outstanding salaries and claims before termination.
The country continues to recover from recent violence between Malaitans and non-Malaitans, particularly the Guadacanalese. Tensions remain and reconciliation among the different groups has yet to occur.
Despite legal guarantees of equal rights, discrimination limits the economic and political roles of women. No law prohibits domestic violence, although rape and common assault are illegal. Reports of violence against adult and teenage women have increased since the coup in June 2000. In December 2003, a local woman, described as a middle-aged divorced mother, was arrested and charged with having sex with a person of the same gender. Homosexuality is illegal in the Solomon Islands. The woman was denied bail and kept in police custody on the grounds that she might interfere with witnesses.