In recent years, the Pacific nation of Solomon Islands has been in the news for its controversial and secretive security pact with China. However, Solomon Islands’ peace and security is contingent on far more than treaties and its current prime minister’s shifting geopolitical allegiances.
While small in population (over 700,000 people), Solomon Islands’ cultural diversity is vibrant, with indigenous practices, land and sea tenure, and arts and crafts being a striking feature of the place. It has over 70 language groups and Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian peoples. These different identities have mostly coexisted peacefully since independence in 1978. However, people from different identity groups also have engaged in conflicts with each other, the most recent a small-scale civil war from 1998 to 2003 (resulting in 200 deaths). Militant groups on the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita fought each other, and intimidated their own communities, with the police and its weaponry being compromised, and government services interrupted for several years.
Many violent conflicts in Solomon Islands relate back to the state, issues that were exacerbated by colonialism and colonial plantations, and then by grievances with the state after independence. Solomon Islands inherited a set of British parliamentary and government institutions, mostly focusing power at the national level, despite repeated calls for a form of state or decentralized governance to bring government closer, and more accountable to, its diverse peoples. This issue is ongoing and flared up when Daniel Suidani was ousted in February as the premier of Malaita, the most populous province, after he disagreed with Prime Minister Manasseh Damukana Sogavare’s decision to ally with China. Suidani said the actions of the national government threatened democracy.
A Precarious Situation
In April 2003, after calls from a number of local leaders, Allan Kemakeza, then prime minister of Solomon Islands, made an urgent request for international assistance. The resultant Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was given a mission to, among other things, address civil unrest and lawlessness, economic decline and corruption. Since the intervention of the RAMSI and its departure in 2017, the country has not slipped back into civil war. However, its security and stability remain precarious. Its capital city, Honiara, has been the site of three major riots — in 2006, 2019 and 2021 — each arising in times of national power transitions, and also linked to dissatisfaction with perceived links between members of parliament and the Chinese state or businesses. There was non-fatal gun violence following the prime ministerial elections in 2014, signaling the real danger of the use of weapons and militant tactics. There is frequent sabotage and violence against loggers and miners by indigenous landowners. The police have often been called in to suppress protests against these activities.
Violence is also gendered, with high rates of violence against women and girls. Women, while being key peacemakers and peace campaigners that supported the end of the civil war, have rarely been included in political and security decision-making since. Only four of the 50 members of the national parliament are women, although there has been more progress in women’s rise to senior public servant positions, judge and magistrate roles, and in the executive of the police and corrections.
Foreign Companies Dominate Critical Sectors
While Solomon Islands is rich in natural resources, including forests, minerals and fisheries, its wealth is generally captured by foreign companies, which dominate each sector. While there are indigenous companies, such as in food retail, forestry, fisheries, agriculture and transport, they often struggle to compete with bigger foreign operators that are more adept at securing concessions from the government. For instance, bauxite mining companies, which damaged certain environments on Rennell Island through their activities and a major oil spill in February 2019, enjoyed exemptions directly negotiated by Sogavare. Solomon Islands has high levels of public sector corruption, according to recent reports.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Solomon Islanders themselves remain fishers and farmers, activities done for subsistence and small cash sales such as at rural markets. This is a source of resilience, particularly during shocks such as disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic, but also of vulnerability as the country is at risk of disasters and climate change.
The stark contrast of foreigners benefiting from Solomon Islands’ economy, while material conditions and services for its indigenous people have not changed, is a constant theme in grievances and public dialogues.
Countering Oppression and Corruption
These issues, from the failure of the government to deliver donated medical supplies to clinics and hospitals to corruption of public funds and foreign companies skirting responsibility for their actions, are highlighted in the media, civil society organizations and popular social media groups. While many of these have reported intimidation by political leaders, foreign interference in reporting and proposals to ban or restrict online spaces, they persist. Indigenous nongovernmental organizations and leaders (notably chiefs and churches), women’s organizations and networks and youth networks also provide sites for cooperation over tangible activities, from charity to savings, and for dialogue between peers in rural areas. These networks play a key role in conflict mediation and resolution. They are also first responders to conflicts and violence.
Police resources and reach are limited. There is also the problem of a lack of trust in the force and concerns about further militarization. The majority of people who report crimes to the police are dissatisfied with the response, while some have experience police attacks on unarmed citizens. However, in cases where the police work with local leaders and networks, there are better outcomes. The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force’s Crime Prevention Strategy involves establishing committees and networks for crime prevention, which have helped cut down crime and antisocial behaviors (such as consumption of illegal home brew and public disturbances).
The state’s use of force to quell protests and riots, a key focus of Solomon Islands’ security treaty with China, and in Australia’s recent assistance to the police, is not the answer to the nest of conflict conditions in the country. Similarly, while Suidani was removed from office through a vote of no confidence supported by national government actions, his suppression is unlikely to be the end of popular leaders pushing for change.
A Path to Peace
Acknowledging and addressing causes of conflict, and active de-escalation of the conflicts that exist, can better pave the way to peace. A new USIP essay series on Solomon Islands will delve into conflicts and promise for change in relation to: balancing power between local and national systems; environmental security and extractive industries; governance reform; policing, gender and social inclusion; and reconciliation and peaceful relations between people. Each of these issues, while long-standing concerns, have also been shaped by geopolitical competition and shifting allegiances, as we will see.
Ultimately, building peace in a complex and rapidly changing environment will be about looking at conflict, not only “down” from major powers to the islands, but also up from Solomon Islands into the world, so we see conflict as multilayered and find options for peace.
Anouk Ride is an adjunct senior fellow at the Solomon Islands National University and a fellow at Australian National University.