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The Solomon Islands received a downward trend arrow due to former Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s persistent suppression of all challenges and queries surrounding his appointment of Julian Moti, an Australian citizen charged with sex crimes against a minor, as attorney general.
Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare in 2007 continued to grapple with political opponents and Australia, the Solomon Islands’ main donor and leader of a multinational peacekeeping force in the country, over his 2006 appointment of an attorney general who was wanted in Australia for alleged sex crimes against a minor. In defending his decision, Sogavare threatened the media, penalized peacekeeping officials, and deepened public distrust in the government. Parliament removed the prime minister with a no-confidence vote in December, and the new government quickly deported the controversial attorney general, Julian Moti, to Australia.
The Solomon Islands gained independence from Britain in 1978. Tensions between the two largest ethnic groups—the Guadalcanalese of the main island of Gaudalcanal and the Malaitans of the province of Malaita—over jobs and land rights erupted into open warfare in 1998. Scores were injured or killed before peace was restored with the Townsville Peace Agreement of 2000, brokered by Australia and New Zealand. Order was maintained initially by a UN mission and after 2003 by the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).
No single party secured a majority in the April 2006 parliamentary elections, with independents winning 30 of the 50 seats. The new chamber chose Deputy Prime Minister Snyder Rini to replace Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza, who had taken office after the 2001 elections. Allegations that Rini had used money from Chinese business allies to bribe lawmakers into supporting him sparked two days of riots in the capital. Australia and New Zealand sent in hundreds of troops to restore order, and Rini resigned after just eight days as prime minister. In May, Parliament elected Manasseh Sogavare in his place; Sogavare had previously held the post between 2000 and 2001. Given the ongoing insecurity in the country, Sogavare in August asked RAMSI to stay on for another year.
In his first months in office, the prime minister showed little commitment to improving government accountability, security, or economic development. He attempted to assign cabinet posts to two lawmakers accused of inciting the April 2006 riots, but relented in the face of threats from Australia and other international donors. Lawmakers also raised salaries for themselves and senior civil servants even as essential public services faltered.
The most glaring source of friction between Sogavare and his foreign and domestic critics was the September 2006 appointment of his close friend Julian Moti, a Fijian-born Australian citizen, as attorney general. Moti was wanted in Australia for alleged sex crimes against a minor in Vanuatu, but Sogavare refused to extradite him. Moti fled to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and was arrested there, but he jumped bail and reentered the Solomon Islands without a passport on a PNG military flight in October 2006. The police arrested him for improper reentry, but a local court cleared him of these charges. RAMSI then raided Sogavare’s office for evidence of involvement in Moti’s unlawful return. In retaliation, Sogavare declared the Australian-born police chief an “undesirable” immigrant, forcing him and his family to leave the country, and also expelled the Australian high commissioner after he spoke out against the police chief’s termination. In addition, the government rejected visas for spouses and dependents of RAMSI officials, demanded a timeframe for RAMSI’s withdrawal, and threatened to repeal the law that allows RAMSI to operate in the country.
Subsequent to the threat to eject RAMSI from the Solomon Islands, Sogavare proposed in January to rearm the police. The police matter alarmed the public and Australia, since the force had a history of corruption and incompetence and could present a threat to the country’s fragile security if rearmed. Sogavare dropped the proposal in the face of strong opposition, including a failed no-confidence vote against him in parliament. Meanwhile, the government appointed Jahir Khan of Fiji as the new police commissioner, and he assumed his post in May. Opponents argued that only the Public Service Commission could appoint a new police commissioner and that there was no formal job advertisement.
Also during the year, Sogavare blocked a PNG inquiry team from visiting to investigate Moti’s 2006 military flight and threatened to file criminal defamation charges against anyone who criticized the attorney general. Moti assumed his post in July, pledging to pursue all those involved in delaying his appointment. The opposition, labor unions, and civil society groups continued to call for Moti’s resignation and extradition to Australia. The opposition tried to remove Sogavare from office with another no-confidence vote in August, but failed again.
Separately, Sogavare had drawn additional criticism by creating a Peace and Integrity Council (PIC) to replace the National Peace Council (NPC) in January 2007. The Australian-funded NPC had a mandate to foster peace and reconciliation, encourage the surrender of weapons, and facilitate consultation between the national and provincial governments and with civil society groups. The PIC would have a different mandate and responsibilities. Strong public outcry against this change forced the government to retain the NPC.
The prime minister’s troubles came to a head in November, when nine ministers withdrew from the government. The parliamentary opposition forced a no-confidence vote in December, and Sogavare was successfully removed from office. Lawmakers then chose Derek Sikua to replace him. By year’s end, the new government had extradited Moti to Australia.
The Solomon Islands are not an electoral democracy. Recent elections have been marred by fraud allegations. A governor-general, appointed on the advice of Parliament for a five-year term, represents the British monarch as head of state. Members of the 50-seat, unicameral National Parliament are elected for four-year terms. A parliamentary majority elects the prime minister, and the cabinet is appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister.
There are several political parties, but independents heavily outnumber their representatives in Parliament, and political activity is driven more by personalities and clan identities than party affiliation. In an effort to promote political stability, Parliament in 2006 passed a law to prevent legislators from easily switching parties.
Rampant corruption at all levels of government is a major source of public discontent and a hindrance to economic development. The country was ranked 111 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression and the press is generally respected. Reports on corruption and abuses by police and politicians appear in the local media, including Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s threats against journalists over the Moti affair in 2007. Those accused of wrongdoing sometimes use legal and extralegal means to intimidate journalists; the government generally pursues such matters in the courts. The print media include a daily, a weekly, and two monthly publications. The government operates the only radio station. There is no local television station, but foreign broadcasts can be received via satellite. Internet penetration is low, mainly due to technical and cost barriers.
Freedom of religion is generally respected. Academic freedom is observed, but lack of public funds severely undermines the quality of education.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the government generally recognizes this right. Organizers of demonstrations must obtain permits, which are typically granted. Civil society groups operate without interference. Workers are free to organize, and strikes are permitted. Wage earners make up 10 to 15 percent of the workforce; the rest engage in subsistence farming and fishing. In January 2007, teachers nationwide went on strike for one week for higher wages.
Threats against judges and prosecutors have weakened the independence and rigor of the judicial system. Judges and prosecutors have also been implicated in corruption and abuse scandals. A lack of resources limits the government’s ability to provide legal counsel and timely trials. In March 2007, pretrial detainees went on a hunger strike to protest being held for years amid case backlogs. Traditional chiefs have sought more funds for traditional courts in rural areas to ease the strain on the formal court system.
The constitution provides for an ombudsman tasked with investigating complaints of official abuse or unfair treatment. The ombudsman’s office has potentially far-reaching powers, including the use of subpoenas, but lacks funds to do its work.
There is no military. Domestic security and law enforcement are provided by a civilian-controlled police force of about 1,000 people, but poor training, the widespread abuse of power, and factional and ethnic rivalries have undermined public trust in the service. Prison conditions meet minimum international standards. A new prison facility completed in 2004 has improved living conditions for prisoners.
Growing anti-Chinese sentiment was a central factor in the April 2006 riots. Chinese businessmen’s increasing dominance of the domestic economy, in a broader atmosphere of rampant corruption, stokes public suspicions that they use their wealth to influence politicians.
Discrimination limits the economic and political roles of women. The first female cabinet minister and the first female principal magistrate were appointed in October 2007. No law prohibits domestic violence, but rape and common assault are illegal. Lack of funds for public education and health programs in the face of traditional attitudes hinders efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. An estimated 16 percent of the population now carries the virus. The Church of Melanesia has reported that the expansion of the logging industry has contributed to a rise in prostitution, abuse, and exploitation of children.