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Freedom in the World 2007 - Solomon Islands

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 16 April 2007
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2007 - Solomon Islands, 16 April 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c55f813.html [accessed 22 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 500,000
Capital: Honiara

Political Rights Score: 4
Civil Liberties Score: 3
Status: Partly Free

Ratings Change
The Solomon Islands' political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the poor conduct of April parliamentary elections, which were followed by two days of riots.

Overview

Law and order remained fragile in the Solomon Islands in 2006. The selection of Snyder Rini as prime minister following the April parliamentary elections sparked racially charged riots in the capital. Rini resigned, and Manasseh Sogavare was chosen as the new prime minister in May. Sogavare survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament in October.


The Solomon Islands, consisting of more than 27 islands and 70 language groups, were a British protectorate until independence in 1978. Clan and ethnic identity remain much stronger than national identity and serve as a deep source of friction in the country. 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. The MEF in June 2000 succeeded in capturing the prime minister and forcing his resignation. Fighting officially ended with the Townsville Peace Agreement of October 2000, which Australia and New Zealand helped to broker.

Parliamentary elections in December 2001 brought a new government to power under Sir Allan Kemakeza. Both a UN mission and the Australian-led multinational Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) have worked to restore peace and order. Change has been slow, but some important progress has been made. In May 2004, the National Parliament convened for the first time since the MEF took the capital in June 2000. Several leaders of the armed factions have been arrested and brought to trial. Former MEF leader Harold Keke was sentenced to life in prison in 2005, and several senior officials have been arrested and charged for their alleged involvement in the 2000 coup and related crimes. The police's Corruption Targeting Task Force, with help from RAMSI, has arrested several high-ranking officials for corruption, fraud, and other crimes. In 2005, the minister of health was arrested and charged with theft of development aid money while in office, and former prime minister Ezekiel Alebua was arrested for the inappropriate use of a victims' compensation fund.

Parliamentary elections were held on April 5, 2006, and monitored by international observers. All 50 parliamentary seats were up for election, yet no single party secured a dominant majority. Each of the nine parties took between 2 and 4 seats, and independents won 30. Half of all Parliament members were replaced.

The subsequent selection of Snyder Rini, deputy to former prime minister Kemakeza, as the country's new leader sparked two days of riots, on April 18 and 19, in the capital because of allegations that lawmakers were bribed to back Rini for the benefit of Asian-owned businesses. Both Kemakeza and Rini have close personal business and families ties to the ethnic Chinese business community. Australia and New Zealand sent in hundreds of troops to restore order. Rini resigned just eight days after his selection. In May, Parliament held a secret ballot and chose Manasseh Sogavare as the new prime minister; he had previously held the post in 2000 and 2001, after the coup.

A lack of improvement in government institutions has prompted Australia to threaten a termination of financial assistance. Sogavare drew criticism when he decided to grant government positions to members of Parliament who were held for alleged involvement in the April riots. He later rescinded the decisions but publicly pushed to end criminal investigations against the two men.

In July, the government raised wages for the most senior civil servants, and members of Parliament approved a pay hike for themselves. The move would cost taxpayers an additional $4 million a year as the economy remained in a dire state and essential public services faltered due to a lack of funds. The riots in April demonstrated that domestic security and law enforcement agencies were incapable of ensuring peace and order in the country, leading Sogavare in August to ask Australia to maintain RAMSI for another year. The request, made without consulting the Parliament, incited a motion of no confidence in October, which Sogavare survived.

The case of Julian Moti, a Fijian-born Australian citizen who was hired to serve as attorney general in the Solomon Islands, caused further embarrassment for Sogavare as well as diplomatic tensions with Australia. Moti is wanted in Australia for child sex offense charges, yet Sogavare refused to extradite him. When Moti fled to Papua New Guinea, then jumped bail and returned to the Solomon Islands in a Papua New Guinean military aircraft without a passport, the police and RAMSI raided Sogavare's office for evidence of alleged involvement in Moti's unlawful return. In retaliation, the government declared the Australian-born police chief an "undesirable" immigrant and expelled Australia's high commissioner to the Solomon Islands. Although a local court cleared Moti of all charges related to his reentry, further allegations of Sogavare's involvement in the Moti case strained an important partnership for the country. The Solomon Islands needs Australian financial aid and forces for economic and social stability, while Australia is intent on preventing the island nation from sliding into trouble even if it means working with a leadership that it does not support.

Schoolteachers nationwide went on strike on October 30 when the government failed to meet their demand for an increase in wages and other benefits. The strike ended in a matter of days when the government agreed to a unified salary structure for all government employees, including teachers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, police, prison service workers, and civil servants.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Solomon Islands are not an electoral democracy. Recent elections have been marred by fraud allegations. The country is a member of the Commonwealth, and the British monarch is the head of state. She is represented by a governor-general appointed on the advice of Parliament for a five-year term. Nathaniel Waena, the current governor-general, was appointed in July 2004. The government is a modified parliamentary system with a 50-member, unicameral National Parliament; members 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.

The leading political parties are the People's Alliance Party and the Solomon Islands Alliance for Change Coalition. However, political activity is driven more by personalities and clan identities than party affiliations. The August 2006 passage of a bill to prevent members of Parliament from easily switching parties was intended to promote political stability.

Corruption is a serious problem, serving to stir public resentment and hamper economic development. An independent audit in 2005 and 2006 found nearly $5 million missing from a loan borrowed from the Export-Import Bank of Taiwan to provide compensation to victims of ethnic conflict between 1998 and 2000. Former prime minister Kemakeza was alleged to have been involved in stealing the funds, and his claims of $121,000 in personal losses have been called excessive. Children of high-ranking government officials have reportedly received a large number of government scholarships for overseas study. Petty corruption among the lower ranks of government also appears to be widespread. After the April 2006 elections, critics charged that Chinese businessmen had bankrolled Rini's selection as prime minister. In that month's rioting, Chinese businesses were targeted, and the capital's Chinatown district was extensively damaged. A small number of Chinese have lived in the country for decades, but a recent influx of Chinese migrants and their expanding presence in the domestic economy has fueled anti-Chinese sentiment. The World Bank classifies the Solomon Islands as a fragile state because of the underlying ethnic and political tensions and weakness in the institutions tasked with addressing them. The Solomon Islands were not ranked in Transparency International's 2006 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. Those charged with wrongdoing sometimes use legal and extralegal means to intimidate journalists, but the government generally leaves matters to the courts for adjudication. 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 because of the lack of telecommunications infrastructure and prohibitive costs.

Freedom of religion is generally respected. In May 2006, the government decided to ban the movie The Da Vinci Code due to local church opposition. Academic freedom is also respected despite serious disruptions in instruction and research as a result of the recent violence and a lack of government funds. The new government of Prime Minister Sogavare says it will double funding for the College of Higher Education to $1.6 million by 2007.

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. Many civil society groups operate freely, with the largest numbers of groups promoting development and religion. 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.

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 2004, the chief justice was dismissed for alleged misconduct. A lack of resources limits the government's ability to provide legal counsel and timely prosecution of trials. Traditional chiefs have asked the government to provide more funds for traditional courts in rural areas to ease demand on the formal court system.

The constitution provides for an ombudsman, with the power to subpoena and investigate complaints of official abuse or unfair treatment. The ombudsman's office has potentially far-reaching powers but is limited by a lack of funds.

There is no army. Domestic security and law enforcement are provided by a civilian-controlled police force of about 1,000 people. Factional and ethnic rivalries within the police since the 2000 coup have rendered the force virtually useless. Many Malaitan officers joined the MEF, and the hiring of 1,200 untrained former militants as "special constables" to stop the fighting also caused problems. Many of these "special constables" have been involved in criminal activities; police reform is a major focus for RAMSI. Prisons conditions are basic but meet international standards. A new prison building, with a recreation center, a kitchen, toilets in every cell, and a family visitation center, has improved living conditions for prisoners. In 2005, two police officers were charged with the abduction and rape of a woman.

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 2000 coup. Lack of funds for public education and health programs in the face of traditional attitudes have hindered efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, and an estimated 16 percent of the population currently carries the virus.

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