A fisherman unloads tuna at the main market in central Honiara. Photo: REUTERS/Daniel Munoz
A fisherman unloads tuna at the main market in central Honiara. Photo: REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

Testament of the Solomon Islands

Author Julie L. Kessler speaks to the Solomon Islands' Chief Justice, Sir Albert Palmer, about the challenges in establishing good governance in a small developing nation

November 24, 2016 11:13 AM (UTC+8)

With the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack coming this December, there has – in the United States, at any rate – been renewed interest in the Pacific as the zone where World War II’s course was irrevocably altered.

The Guadalcanal Campaign in the Solomon Islands was pivotal, and it resulted in some of the Pacific’s most brutal fighting, with heavy losses sustained by both Allied and Japanese forces.

Since WWII, much has happened in the Solomons, which comprise 900 islands of varying sizes, stretching from Papua New Guinea in the north toward Fiji in the south – but relatively little has changed. Some 85% of the islands’ mostly Melanesian population of 635,000 still live in isolated rural villages on underdeveloped outer islands where services have never really existed. Approximately 500,000 do not have electricity and education is not compulsory, although according to statistics 84% of the population is functionally literate. It has been argued that of all the United Kingdom’s Pacific colonial outposts – the Solomons were granted independence as a parliamentary democracy within the Commonwealth in 1978 – this was the territory least prepared for nationhood.

Honiara, the capital, is on the island of Guadalcanal, although the Solomons’ most populated territory is a neighboring province, Malaita. Before independence, and in the decades after it, many Malaitans moved to Guadalcanal – which resulted in festering resentment amongst the Guales, Guadalcanal’s indigenous people. In mid-2000, armed rebels belonging to an ethnically-based secessionist group calling itself the Malaitan Eagle Forces (MEF) seized Honiara, demanding Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu’s resignation and clashing with the Guales’ Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM).

A coup led by the MEF’s spokesman, Andrew Nori – a barrister and politician, and himself a Malaitan – resulted in significant economic and infrastructural damage, and to Ulufa’alu’s replacement after he had been taken hostage at gunpoint. Ultimately, in mid-2003, at the government’s request, an Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI) intervened to prevent economic collapse.

In order to better understand the path this island nation has taken since independence, I met with the Solomons’ Chief Justice, Sir Albert Palmer. Born on Munda, in 1959, Chief Justice Palmer studied economics and law at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, before returning to join the magistracy in Honiara in 1987.

Julie L. Kessler: Last month you returned to the University of Otago to deliver a lecture entitled “Strengthening the Rule of Law in a small, developing nation.” What would you say is the biggest challenge in this respect?

Sir Albert Palmer: Applying the law isn’t an issue, but getting the rule of law accepted by the population is. Ours is a more communal, traditional, tribal way of life. We don’t have Western-style nuclear families. Instead, the tribal clans and community prevail. The conflict between this and rule of law application is an issue. Education and training are crucial, but it takes time for local understanding and assimilation of Western concepts of rule of law.

JLK: In 1985 the Parliament enacted the Local Courts Amendment Act (LCAA). This provided that no party to a customary land dispute should be allowed access to the court system until traditional channels of dispute resolution were exhausted through chiefs or tribal leaders, to “divert and remove cases” from an overtaxed system. Is this currently still the law?

SAP: Yes. This was the brainchild of Andrew Nori and it was a noble concept. He tried valiantly to correct a broken system. The path is tribal chief, local court, Customary Land Appeal Court, High Court appeal on law and procedure, then Court of Appeals. Start to finish can often take 5 to 10 years.

JLK: Has the LCAA been successful in reducing court loads and managing these land cases to completion?

SAP: No, 99% of cases still end up in formal courts. Litigation is adversarial. with winners and losers, whereas traditional ways are grayer. Circulating now is a “Tribal Land Disputes Resolution Panel” draft bill that sets up a class-type action that would address any interest in a particular land parcel. The bill’s proposal is that Panel decisions would be binding on the land in rem, and could go to High Court only on matters of law.

JLK: What are the biggest ethical challenge facing High Court justices in the Solomons today?

SAP: Continuing to maintain independence and objectivity both in and out of courts. In a sparsely populated nation with extended family and strong community ties, we obviously know many litigants who come before us. Accordingly, many subtle pressures can present challenges. But we must concentrate on issues and cases before us. This same problem exists for lower courts judges.

JLK: Ocean and fisheries resources have always played a central role for all Pacific Islanders and illegal fishing continues to be a major challenge for the Solomons and its neighbors. This summer you co-hosted the Judicial Conference with the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), an Honiara-based, 17-nation intergovernmental agency established in 1979 and comprised of 15 island nations plus Australia and New Zealand. The FFA’s mission is to manage, control and develop its member states’ highly migratory fish stocks, mainly tuna. What are the Solomons’ biggest challenge in protecting its fisheries’ resources?

SAP: Ensuring that we have a proactive fisheries division to enforce legislation. Critically important also is keeping legislation up-to-date and working closely with regional bodies such as the FFA.

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Traditional dancers in Honiara. Photo: Neil Sands / AFP PHOTO

JLK: Has the judicial role in safeguarding these resources increased?

SAP: Not really, since it depends on prosecution of cases. Very few cases have come forward, mainly because of limited resources. We only have one or two patrol boats. The capacity to travel far and regularly is difficult because of costs. I believe there have been some Taiwanese and Chinese boats intercepted. But there may be hundreds out there. This is why Australia’s help is so critical as they have the resources to blacklist offending companies.

JLK: Following RAMSI, the law and order and fiscal situation remained fragile. In the decade and more since, has the situation improved appreciably?

SAP: Yes, definitely. RAMSI turned things around and will be leaving next year. The Solomons’ finances are in control, law and order is on the ground, and public confidence regained. We’re happy and grateful for that. We possess a great window of opportunity to learn from past mistakes and do things correctly. Courts must continue regulating, inefficiencies must be reduced.

JLK: Education is not compulsory here. How do you see the Solomons’ ability to confront the many issues it faces preparing for the future without a fully literate populace?

SAP: The right focus is that government should mandate compulsory education. We have a high drop-out rate after primary school, and another large group dropping out after secondary school. It’s not that the government doesn’t want to pay, but (a question) of economics. Our economic base isn’t yet strong enough. Good leadership is crucial. We must have clear-thinking leaders possessing the right temperament. Resource maximization is key.

JLK: How do you foresee getting basic services to the more than 85-percent of residents living in rural villages?

SAP: The future is bright if revenue is properly allocated, but could easily fall apart. Today much revenue comes from logging, which is wholly unsustainable. Seeking alternatives to environmental damage and jobs for the unemployed is paramount. Law and policy must support this.

JLK: What are the Solomons’ greatest legal challenges going forward?

SAP: Ensuring old laws are updated and new laws enacted. We need a proactive parliament. Obviously one way to change society’s behavior is enacting good laws. Relative to developed nations, our enactment rates are very slow. The legal drafters’ office [attached to Attorney General] needs to be enlarged and strengthened to keep up with our needs.

JLK: If you had a magic wand and could immediately change something in the Solomons’ law, what would that be?

SAP: A pool of talented leaders bearing influence. The nation will go where our leaders take them. Singapore is my favorite example of what can be accomplished with a great leader. We have a lot of resources, but it’s critical that we have good leadership.

Julie L. Kessler is an attorney based in Los Angeles, a freelance writer and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her personal website is www.vagabondlawyer.com.

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