Prime Minister Derek Sikua made reconciliation a top priority; UN Photo/Marco Castro.

The Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) launched its first public hearings on March 10, marking an important step forward in the national quest for reconciliation following the five-year ethnic conflict ending in 2003. Nineteen victims testified over two days, publicly recounting experiences they have rarely spoken about, even in private. One woman, Edith Padavisu, told of an attack on her husband in Guadalcanal in April 1999. She described how militants used bush knives, spears and guns in their assault, after which they left her husband to die.

Ethnic tensions on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands, have roots back to independence in 1978. Guadalcanal natives believed ethnic Malaita settlers from other islands had acquired a disproportionate amount of jobs and land on Guadalcanal. These tensions escalated to violence in December 1998, when the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army (also known as the Istambu Freedom Fighters) began a campaign to force Malaitan settlers to leave Guadalcanal. Malaitans formed their own competing militia, the Malaita Eagle Force. Fighting continued until 2003, when a regional coalition of troops from Australia and other Pacific islands arrived to restore stability. During the conflict, more than 100 people were killed and 20,000 displaced. Many others suffered various human rights abuses, including torture.

Although the armed conflict has ended, the Solomon Islands continue to experience political instability and ethnic tensions, due in large part to unaddressed issues and unanswered questions. The current Prime Minister Derek Sikua, who took office in 2007, made reconciliation an official top priority. This included the establishment, in 2008, of the TRC, tasked with investigating the causes of the conflict and the nature and extent of human rights abuses during that period; evaluating the impact of the conflict on the educational, health and other sectors; and making recommendations on how to prevent future conflict.

Borrowing from the South African model, the TRC is composed of five members, three nationals and two non-nationals, who lead public hearings in which victims, witnesses and perpetrators can testify. The TRC was officially launched in April 2009, with an appearance by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Over the next year, the TRC held workshops around the country to inform citizens about its work  and the opportunities available to them. The TRC plans to hold seven more hearings this year, the next on the island of Malaita. Many witnesses have already volunteered to testify at future hearings.

One crucial component has been absent from the hearings – testimony from the perpetrators. Witnesses and victims have called for the perpetrators to testify, so that the whole community can benefit from the TRC and begin to move forward. Selwyn Kei, a victim testifying before the TRC, asked for the chance to forgive his perpetrators. He said, “I am asking you, my perpetrators, to come forward to reconcile with me. Together we can carry our nation forward.” Father Samual Ata, the Chair of the TRC, supported these calls for perpetrators to step forward, not for judgment but for reconciliation, pronouncing “We definitely encourage them to testify. It is very important, because the perpetrators do also need healing.”