Solomon Islands | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands

Free
79/100
Overview: 

Political rights and civil liberties are generally respected in the Solomon Islands. There are weaknesses in the rule of law, and corruption remains a serious concern, but recent governments have taken steps to address it. Violence against women is also a significant problem.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • In July, Parliament passed two measures, the Anti-Corruption Act and the Whistleblowers Protection Act, that were designed to strengthen institutional protections against corruption.
  • Investigations by a special anticorruption task force led to a number of high-profile arrests during the year.
  • Lawmaker Freda Tuki Soriocomua lost her seat in Parliament in October after being convicted of bribing voters.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 30 / 40 (+2)

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 9 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

The prime minister, who serves as the head of government, is elected by Parliament. Irregularities are frequent in the run-up to prime ministerial elections, known as the “second election.” Leading contenders usually separate into camps in Honiara’s major hotels and bid for the support of other members of Parliament (MPs) with promises of cash or ministerial portfolios.

A boat used to transport legislators to and from a neighboring island (to prevent defections) ahead of the 2014 prime ministerial vote was fired upon by unknown assailants in an apparent effort to disrupt the second election. The MPs nevertheless were able to participate, and Manasseh Sogavare was chosen as prime minister.

In 2017, Sogavare was ousted in a no-confidence vote. However, the opposition failed to hold together to elect an alternative leader. Instead, a group of opposition members crossed the floor to join Sogavare in electing Rick Houenipwela (“Hou” for short), a former central bank governor and World Bank employee, as the country’s new prime minister.

Parliament also selects a governor general to represent the British monarch as head of state for five-year terms. The governor general appoints members of the cabinet on the advice of the prime minister. In 2014, Frank Kabui won a second term as governor general.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

The 50 members of the National Parliament are directly elected in single-seat constituencies by a simple majority vote to serve four-year terms. The parliamentary elections in 2014 were considered a significant improvement over previous elections, though ongoing concerns about vote buying and other abuses were reported. Independent candidates dominated the voting, taking a record 32 seats. The Democratic Alliance Party won 7, followed by the United Democratic Party with 5, the People’s Alliance Party with 3, and three smaller parties with 1 each. A Commonwealth observer mission concluded that “the election was credible and the results reflected the wishes of the people.” The next elections were scheduled to be held in early 2019.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4

The legal framework generally provides for democratic elections. The electoral rolls have been improved since the introduction in late 2013 of a biometric voter registration system, which reduced the previous practice whereby many Honiara voters were registered twice, both in their urban residence and on their home islands. In November 2018, the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission said it had identified 60,000 instances of multiple registration; these were referred to the police.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 14 / 16 (+1)

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4

There are no restrictions on the right to organize political parties, but in practice political alliances are driven more by personal ties and local allegiances than formal policy platforms or ideology, and party affiliations shift frequently, often as part of efforts to dislodge incumbent governments. The 2014 Political Parties Integrity Act was meant to encourage a stronger party system through more formalized registration mechanisms. Many formerly party-aligned legislators responded by standing as independents in that year’s elections (including the prime minister), calculating that doing so left them with greater flexibility under the new law.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

Opposition parties and candidates may campaign freely, and power shifts frequently between rival groups. Since 1978, three governments have been ousted in opposition-led no-confidence votes, and prime ministers have resigned to fend off no-confidence challenges on two occasions. No incumbent prime minister has been able to win reelection, although both Sogavare and former prime minister Solomon Mamaloni were able to return to the prime minister’s office after a period on the opposition benches.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4 (+1)

People’s political choices are generally unconstrained, though in some regions of the country church or tribal leaders exert strong influence. On the island of New Georgia, the Christian Fellowship Church secured reelection of its candidate, Job Dudley Tausinga, for decades, but schisms have since emerged on that island.

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because there have been few undemocratic constraints on the public’s political choices in recent years.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

Women and ethnic minorities enjoy full political rights under the law, but discrimination limits political opportunities for women in practice. Just one woman, Freda Tuki Soriocomua, won a seat in the 2014 elections. She lost her position in October 2018 after a court found that she had bribed voters. Another woman, Lanelle Tanangada, was elected in a May 2018 by-election, taking her husband’s seat after he lost it in 2017, also for bribing voters in 2014. Many lawmakers have voiced support for increasing women’s participation in the National Parliament, including through reserved seats for women.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 7 / 12 (+1)

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4 (+1)

Solomon Islands governments have generally been able to determine national policy without outside interference, but the country’s fractious politics hamper efficient policymaking. Prime ministers have struggled to sustain legislative majorities, and splits within the cabinet are frequent. Ministries are often run as ministers’ personal fiefdoms, lacking accountability to the prime minister. The exigencies of political survival can lead prime ministers to lose focus on their policy agenda. However, since the establishment of Rick Hou’s premiership in late 2017, the government has been able operate with relative stability, adopting long-sought anticorruption laws and other key legislation during 2018.

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the current government has proven stable enough to adopt important legislation on corruption and other matters.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4

Corruption and abuse of office are serious problems. The Sogavare government struggled to win support for anticorruption legislation in 2016 and 2017, largely due to resistance from within the cabinet. In July 2018, Hou’s government secured passage of the Anti-Corruption Act, which establishes an independent anticorruption commission, and the Whistleblowers Protection Act. Some opposition MPs criticized the new laws as having been watered down, for example by allowing the use of local custom as a defense in corruption cases and by stipulating that the law cannot be applied retroactively.

Under both the Sogavare and Hou governments, a number of senior officials have been investigated or arrested in connection with corruption charges due to the efforts of Task Force Janus, a joint anticorruption initiative by the police force and the Finance Ministry. Among other cases during 2018, MP Dickson Mua was arrested in October for allegedly misappropriating some SI$3 million (US$370,000) in shipping grants.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4

Successive governments in the Solomon Islands have not operated transparently. State dealings with foreign logging companies are not open to scrutiny. Efforts to improve accountability for funds spent by MPs in their constituencies have not been greatly successful. Transparency Solomon Islands reported in August 2018 that the government had been taking funds from the ministries to supply the Constituency Development Funds administered by MPs. There is no law stipulating a formal process by which members of the public may request official information.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 49 / 60 (+5)

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 16 / 16 (+2)

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4 (+1)

Freedom of the press is usually respected. While politicians and elites sometimes use legal and extralegal means to intimidate journalists, such incidents have been relatively rare in recent years. There are several print newspapers. The government operates a national radio station, and subnational and private radio stations are also available. Subscription television services offer some local content in addition to foreign broadcasts. The adoption of the Whistleblowers Protection Act in 2018 was expected to facilitate journalistic efforts to report on political corruption.

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because intimidation and harassment of the media have been rare in recent years, and a new law protecting whistle-blowers strengthened the legal framework for reporting on corruption.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Freedom of religion is generally respected. Registration requirements for religious groups are not onerous, and religious education is not mandatory.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom is generally respected.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4 (+1)

While social taboos persist regarding the open discussion of some topics, including domestic violence, rape, and child abuse, individuals are generally free to express their views on politics and other sensitive matters.

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to a lack of any significant constraints on or retribution for the expression of personal views.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 10 / 12 (+1)

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and the government generally upholds this right. However, peaceful demonstrations can give way to civil unrest, particularly during contentious parliamentary debates, elections, or large-scale labor actions. Some smaller protests proceeded without incident during 2018.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4 (+1)

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country operate informally in many cases, and the government is not always receptive to the viewpoints of governance-focused groups. Locally based NGOs often lack resources and reportedly grow dependent on the funds and priorities of international donors. Nevertheless, there are no major constraints on the activities of NGOs in the Solomon Islands.

Score change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to the lack of any meaningful state restrictions on NGOs or recent reports of interference with their work.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4

Workers are free to organize, and strikes are permitted with certain restrictions. Laws against antiunion discrimination by employers are reportedly ineffective. The country’s main labor union, the Solomon Islands National Union of Workers, was disbanded by court order in late 2013 after lengthy litigation over an illegal strike by plantation workers. However, labor activists registered a new entity, the Workers Union of Solomon Islands (WUSI), in 2014. In 2018, a nurses’ association won concessions by threatening to strike over working conditions, and authorities agreed to reduce a transportation tax increase after transport workers mounted a one-day strike.

F. RULE OF LAW: 11 / 16 (+2)

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4 (+1)

The judiciary has a reputation for independence, though a severe lack of resources has contributed to case backlogs. Judges are appointed by the governor general on the advice of an impartial Judicial and Legal Service Commission. The Court of Appeal is mainly reliant on foreign judges.

Score change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because although insufficient resources have hampered the effectiveness of the court system, there are no major impediments to judicial independence and impartiality.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4

Deficiencies in due process are somewhat common, but they are mainly a result of limited resources and capacity constraints. Due to case backlogs, roughly half of the country’s prison inmates are on remand awaiting trial.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4 (+1)

There are few major threats to physical security, though crime remains a problem in some areas. While the country has a history of internal conflict, the threat has subsided over the past two decades, thanks in large part to security aid from international partners. Rebuilding the police force was the major focus of the 2003–17 Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI). The local police force was disarmed in 2003, and its paramilitary unit, the Police Field Force (which had participated in a 2000 coup) was disbanded. Nearly all of the police officers serving in the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) have resigned, retired, or been dismissed since 2003, and an extensive training program has created a much more youthful force, with better representation of officers from across the country, and a better gender balance. In 2016, RAMSI undertook a limited rearmament of the police force. RAMSI concluded its mission in the Solomon Islands in 2017, but a residual Australian police advisory program continues, and Australia and New Zealand have extended RAMSI programs under bilateral auspices. The Solomon Islands police commissioner, Matthew Varley, is an Australian, as was his predecessor. Fifteen years after the wholesale restructuring of the RSIPF, there are now signs of significant improvements in the functioning of the police force.

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because 15 years of internationally supervised reforms to the police force have improved its performance and bolstered security in the country.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, place of origin, sex, and some other categories, but the legal framework does not provide robust protections. De facto discrimination limits economic opportunities for women. Same-sex sexual activity can be punished with up to 14 years in prison. While cases are reportedly rare, the government has resisted international pressure to decriminalize such activity.

Discrimination based on regional differences also remains a factor. The Guadalcanal Plains Palm Oil Ltd. (GPPOL) operation on northern Guadalcanal, one of the country’s biggest employers, avoids employing laborers from the nearby island of Malaita, even on a casual basis picking loose fruit, for fear of antagonizing local Guadalcanal communities.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 12 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

Residents generally enjoy freedom of movement, but some impediments exist, particularly in parts of rural Guadalcanal where people from the island of Malaita were expelled during the unrest in 1999–2000. Hostility to Malaitan settlement also persists in parts of the Western Province.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4

The legal and regulatory framework largely supports property ownership and private business activity. However, property rights are frequently contested. GPPOL has had its administrative buildings attacked on several occasions. Logging concessions have been disputed by local groups, as have tourism operations.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4

Individual freedoms on personal status issues such as marriage and divorce are generally protected. However, the legal age of marriage is 15, and about a fifth of women are married by age 18. The 2014 Family Protection Act, which formally criminalized domestic violence and enabled victims to apply for protection orders, has been implemented, and police have received training on how to interact with victims and handle cases. Nevertheless, domestic violence and rape are serious and underreported problems, and there is a reluctance among many victims who do report offenses to take their cases to court.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4

Legal protections against exploitative working conditions are not consistently enforced, though authorities have made efforts to update and implement laws against human trafficking in recent years. Local and foreign women and children are vulnerable to sex trafficking and domestic servitude, including through forced marriages or “adoptions” to pay off debts. Migrant workers sometimes face forced labor in the mining, logging, and fishing industries.