U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999 - Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands, with a population of approximately 450,000, is an archipelago stretching over 840 miles in the South Pacific. Its government is a modified parliamentary system consisting of a single-chamber legislative assembly of 50 members. Executive authority is vested in the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. The Prime Minister, elected by a majority vote of Parliament, selects his own Cabinet. Political legitimacy derives from direct election by secret ballot. There have been five general elections since independence in 1978, most recently in August 1997. The judiciary is independent.

A police force of approximately 900 persons under civilian control is responsible for law enforcement and border security.

About 75 percent of the population engage to some extent in subsistence farming and fishing and have little involvement in the cash economy. Commercial activities include some plantation production of copra, cocoa, and palm oil, one fish cannery, a gold mine on Guadalcanal, and small resort and diving enterprises. During the year, the Government successfully realized economic reform goals by repaying debt and reducing the size of the public service. However, ethnic conflict on Guadalcanal closed the nation's largest palm oil plantation, seriously disrupted economic activity in and around the city of Honiara, and disrupted tourism. The Government estimates that it will lose about $10 million in revenue as a result of the plantation closure and will have to spend an unbudgeted $10 million to protect and resettle displaced persons.

Basic individual rights are provided for in the Constitution, generally respected by authorities, and defended by an independent judiciary; however, some rights were suspended during a state of emergency. There was one instance of extrajudicial killing by police. During the year, ethnic violence perpetrated by some indigenous residents of Guadalcanal against immigrants from Malaita (both constituent parts of the country) led to several deaths, kidnapings, and the flight of nearly 23,000 persons from Guadalcanal. To deal with this crisis, the Parliament enacted a 4-month state of emergency on June 17, which extended the arrest and search powers of the police and resulted in infringements on citizens' rights and also included limits on press reporting and freedom of association. The police commissioner denied a demonstration permit to a labor group. Violence and discrimination against women continued to be problems.

Guadalcanal militants committed a number of abuses.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

In confrontations with armed Guadalcanal militants, police shot and killed at least two persons and perhaps as many as six. In one of the cases, a police shooting in January, New Zealand police invited to investigate the incident by the Government found that the police officer who fired the shot acted outside his orders. He was tried and found guilty of manslaughter.

The violence began in January when Guadalcanal militants began attacking homesteads and workplaces of persons originally from the island of Malaita. There is considerable confusion, but it is estimated that the militants killed 12 persons (see Section 1.b.).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances due to the actions of government officials. Guadalcanal militants admitted to kidnaping a prison officer, and 17 other persons were reported missing on Gualdalcanal. Some of the missing may have been killed; others are believed to be held by militants.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

These practices are prohibited by law, and authorities generally respect these provisions in practice. Complaints of excessive use of force by police when making arrests, as well as other complaints about police behavior, are handled by an internal police department investigations office or by the courts. In 1998 the police opened a public complaints office in the capital. There were no reports of excessive use of force by the police during the year, with the exception of the police officer found guilty of manslaughter for killing a Guadalcanal militant (see Section 1.a.).

Conditions in the country's two prisons meet minimum international standards. Following the outbreak of militant attacks, the rural prison in Gualdalcanal was closed, and the prisoners were moved to the prison in Honiara for their safety. Although the prison buildings are old, they are clean, the plumbing appears to work, and the prisoners appear healthy. Due to the influx of prisoners from the minimum-security prison and additional arrests due to the ethnic strife, the prison population is now greater than the capacity of the prison. Several cells built for four persons now hold six, and a number of prisoners sleep dormitory style on the floor of the covered inner courtyard of one of the prison buildings. The female wing of the prison is being used for male prisoners, and the sole female prisoner is housed in the warden's conference room, next to the jail reception area. A new prison complex, slated for completion in 1997, was to have provided separate facilities for short-, medium-, and long-term prisoners, as well as for juvenile offenders. It remains uncompleted due to a lack of funds. A government-appointed Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy, composed of church and social leaders, recommends pardons for rehabilitated prisoners, and at year's end the Government at the Committee's recommendation pardoned 11 prisoners serving life sentences.

The Government permits prison visits by human rights monitors. An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team in Honiara monitors the prisons regularly, and an Amnesty International team visited the prison in late September.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

In general there were no reports of politically motivated arrests or detentions; however, the emergency order allowed police to arrest persons for association with militant groups on Guadalcanal.

Exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and it is independent in practice.

The judicial system consists of a High Court and magistrates' courts. Accused persons are entitled to counsel. However, during the year, the public solicitor, who is charged with providing counsel to persons who cannot afford a private attorney, reported that due to limited resources, his office could accept only those cases in which persons faced serious charges or those involving the protection of children. The law provides for a judicial determination of the legality of arrests. Officials found to have violated civil liberties are subject to fines and jail sentences.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

In addition to legal provisions, the traditional culture provides strong protection against these types of abuses; however, during the emergency order police were allowed to search without warrant, and vehicles were searched routinely for weapons. A constitutionally provided ombudsman, with the power of subpoena, can investigate complaints of official abuse, mistreatment, or unfair treatment. The Ombudsman's Office did not report any incidents involving interference with these rights. While the Ombudsman's Office has potentially far-ranging powers, it is limited by a shortage of investigators and other resources.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Government generally respects the constitutional provisions for freedom of speech and of the press. Although the emergency order prohibited the publication of anything that might incite further violence or ethnic hatred, press sources confirm that factual reporting was not stopped. No censor was established, although the Government exercised its powers under the order to prevent the publication of a classified government document. The national radio station stopped rebroadcasting items on the ethnic unrest from foreign sources. However, foreign journalists continued to work freely in the country.

The media comprise the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC), a statutory body that comes directly under the Prime Minister's office and whose radio broadcasts are heard throughout the country; a privately owned FM radio station; and three privately owned weekly or semiweekly newspapers. Given the high rate of illiteracy, the SIBC is more influential than the print media. The Department of Information in the Prime Minister's office publishes a monthly newspaper, which is strongly progovernment. At least two nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) publish periodic news journals; their environmental reporting frequently is critical of the Government's logging policy and foreign logging companies' practices. A private company transmits one Australian television channel to the country. The system incorporates occasional government press conferences in its program.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right of association; however, under the emergency order, the Government banned membership in Guadalcanal militant groups. Demonstrators must obtain permits. In March the police commissioner denied a permit to a labor group that, he said, had not used normal consultative means to attain the purposes for which its member intended to demonstrate.

c. Freedom of Religion

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this provision in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government places no restrictions on the movement of citizens within or out of the country. However, the militants are demanding that the people indigenous to each island be given authority to determine who may or may not enter their island. Native-born citizens may not be deprived of citizenship on any grounds.

The Red Cross estimates that nearly 23,000 Malaitans fled their homes on Guadalcanal for Malaita during the year. The Government, assisted by national and international organizations, provided the refugees with temporary shelter in Honiara, transport, and some resettlement assistance. An uncounted number of Guadalcanal villagers also abandoned their homes to hide in the bush for extended periods, due to fear of militant and police activity or retribution from dispossessed Malaitans.

Although a party to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, the Government has not enacted domestic legislation or procedures for making formal refugee determinations. The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Red Cross in determining refugee status, and has not returned persons to a country where they fear persecution.

The Government provided first asylum to persons from Papua New Guinea's Bougainville Island, who fled the conflict that started there in 1989. Following the 1998 peace settlement, many have returned home. According to the UNHCR, there are less than 50 persons from Bougainville in the country who meet the criteria for refugee status. In September the Solomon Islands Red Cross reported that Bougainvillians sheltering in the country, who were not considered refugees, had been returning to Bougainville during the year. Most of those who remained were employed professionals, and none were in Red Cross care shelters.

Section 3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens have the right to change their government through periodic free elections. Since independence in 1978, there have been five parliamentary elections, most recently in August 1997, and several elections for provincial and local councils. On four occasions, changes of government resulted from either parliamentary votes of no confidence or the resignation of the Prime Minister. Suffrage is universal for those 18 years of age and over.

Traditional male dominance has limited the role of women in government. Although 14 women ran for Parliament in the 1997 elections, only 1, an incumbent, was elected.

Section 4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no restrictions on the formation of local organizations to monitor and report on human rights. The Solomon Islands Development Trust has both development and human rights objectives. The ICRC has an office in Honiara, and an Amnesty International team visited the country in mid-September.

Section 5. Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides that no person – regardless of race, place of origin, political opinion, color, creed, or disability – shall be treated in a discriminatory manner in respect of access to public places. The Constitution further prohibits any laws that would have discriminatory effects and provides that no person should be treated in a discriminatory manner by anyone acting in an official capacity. Despite constitutional and legal protections, women remain the victims of discrimination in this tradition-based society. Unemployment is high, and there are limited job opportunities for the disabled.


While actual statistics are scarce, incidents of wife beating and wife abuse appear to be common. In the rare cases that are reported, charges often are dropped by the women before the court appearance or are settled out of court. The magistrates' courts deal with physical abuse of women as with any other assault, although prosecutions are rare. During the year, the Police Department continued a series of lectures on domestic violence and child abuse for police officers and for the community. Police officers are now ordered to treat all such incidents like any other criminal offense.

The law accords women equal legal rights. However, in this traditional society men are dominant, and women are limited to customary family roles. This situation has prevented women from taking more active roles in economic and political life. A shortage of jobs inhibits the entry of women into the work force. The majority of women are illiterate; this is attributed in large part to cultural barriers. The National Council of Women and other NGO's have attempted to make women more aware of their legal rights through seminars, workshops, and other activities. The Government's Women Development Division also addresses women's issues.


Within the limits of its resources, the Government is committed to the welfare and protection of the rights of children. There is no compulsory education, and, according to some estimates, only 60 percent of school-age children have access to primary education; the percentages of those attending secondary and tertiary institutions are much smaller. Children are respected and protected within the traditional extended family system, in accordance with a family's financial resources and access to services. As a result, virtually no children are homeless or abandoned. Although some cases of child abuse are reported, there is no societal pattern of abuse. The Constitution grants children the same general rights and protection as adults. Existing laws are designed to protect children from sexual abuse, child labor, and neglect.

People with Disabilities

There is no law or national policy on the disabled, and no legislation mandates access for the disabled. Their protection and care are left to the traditional extended family and nongovernmental organizations. With high unemployment countrywide and few jobs available in the formal sector, most disabled persons, particularly those in rural areas, do not find work outside the family structure. The Solomon Islands Red Cross continued to conduct private fund-raising efforts to build a new national center for disabled children.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The country is composed of over 27 islands with approximately 70 language groups. In the precolonial era, these groups existed in a state of endemic warfare with one another, and even today many islanders see themselves first as members of a clan, next as inhabitants of their natal island, and only third as citizens of their nation. Over the past century, many persons from the poor, heavily populated island of Malaita have settled on Guadalcanal where the resentment they engendered culminated in violence this year (see Sections 1.a. and 1.b.).

Section 6. Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution implicitly recognizes the right of workers to form or join unions, to choose their own representatives, to determine and pursue their own views and policies, and to engage in political activities. The courts have confirmed these rights. Only about 10 to 15 percent of the population participate in the formal sector of the economy. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of wage earners are organized (90 percent of employees in the public sector and about 50 percent of those in the private sector).

The law permits strikes. Disputes are usually referred quickly to the Trade Disputes Panel (TDP) for arbitration, either before or during a strike. In practice the small percentage of the work force in formal employment means that employers have ample replacement workers if disputes are not resolved quickly. However, employees are protected from arbitrary dismissal or lockout while the TDP is deliberating.

Unions are free to affiliate internationally, and the largest trade union, the Solomon Islands' National Union of Workers, is affiliated with the World Federation of Trade Unions, the South Pacific Oceanic Council of Trade Unions, and the Commonwealth Trade Union Congress.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Trade Disputes Act of 1981 provides for the rights to organize and to bargain collectively, and unions exercise these rights frequently.

Wages and conditions of employment are determined by collective bargaining. If a dispute between labor and management cannot be settled between the two sides, it is referred to the TDP for arbitration. The three-member TDP, composed of a chairman appointed by the judiciary, a labor representative, and a business representative, is independent and neutral.

The law protects workers against antiunion activity, and there are no areas where union activity is officially discouraged.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced labor, including forced and bonded labor by children, and, except as part of a court sentence or order, this prohibition is observed.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The law forbids child labor by children under the age of 12, except light agricultural or domestic work performed in the company of parents. Children under age 15 are barred from work in industry or on ships; those under age 18 may not work underground or in mines. The Labor Division of the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, and Industry is responsible for enforcing child labor laws. Given low wages and high unemployment, there is little incentive to employ child labor.

Forced and bonded labor by children is prohibited constitutionally and is not known to occur (see Section 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The minimum wage rate is $0.31 per hour (1.50 Solomon Islands dollars) for all workers except those in the fishing and agricultural sectors, who receive $0.25 (1.25 Solomon Islands dollars). The legal minimum wage is not sufficient to support an urban family living entirely on the cash economy. However, most families are not dependent solely on wages for their livelihoods.

The Labor Act of 1969, as amended, and the Employment Act of 1981, as well as other laws, regulate premium pay, sick leave, the right to paid vacations, and other conditions of service. The standard workweek is 45 hours and is limited to 6 days per week. There are provisions for premium pay for overtime and holiday work and for maternity leave.

Malaria is endemic in the country and affects the health of many employees. Agricultural workers have a high risk of contracting malaria. Ethnic tensions on Guadalcanal, the most economically developed island in the country, resulted in the disruption of economic activity and some employment opportunities. In June Solomon Islands Plantation Ltd. closed its facilities following attacks on its workers. About 2,000 employees were evacuated. Militants have prevented the return of the work force, 60 percent of whom are Malaitan.

Both an active labor movement and an independent judiciary ensure widespread enforcement of labor laws in major state and private enterprises. The Commissioner of Labor, the Public Prosecutor, and the police are responsible for enforcing labor laws. However, they usually react to complaints rather than routinely monitoring adherence to the law. The extent to which the law is enforced in smaller establishments and in the subsistence sector is unclear. Safety and health laws appear to be adequate. The Safety at Work Act requires employers to provide a safe working environment and forbids retribution against an employee who seeks protection under labor regulations or removes himself from a hazardous job site.

f. Trafficking in Persons

The Constitution does not prohibit trafficking in persons; however, there were no reports that persons were trafficked in, to, or from the country.


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