Discussion paper

Translating transitional justice: the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Conflict management Peace-building Violence Reconciliation Solomon Islands


The Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was the first truth commission in the Pacific, established under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act 2008  (TRC Act) in an effort to ‘promote national unity and reconciliation’ following the civil conflict which troubled the country between 1998 and 2003. The commission was publicly launched in 2008 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Chair of the South African TRC, and officially began operations in 2010 for two years. The commission presented its five-volume final report to Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo in February 2012; however, the report has yet to be publicly released or presented to parliament, despite requirements in the Act to do so. The ongoing silence of the government led to the editor of the final report, long-term Solomon Islands resident Bishop Terry Brown, unofficially releasing the report electronically in early 2013.

The TRC conducted exhumations, research, closed hearings and statement taking across six of the nine provinces,  overcoming financial constraints, logistical challenges and difficult terrain. Several regional and thematic public hearings were also held and broadcast on the radio. The final report was handed over to the prime minister within the allocated two-year time frame. In light of these achievements, the Solomon Islands TRC could be considered a ‘success’ insomuch as it fulfilled its mandated duties and produced a final report — a challenging and remarkable achievement itself. This success, however, was arguably superficial, a performance of reconciliation in the theatre of post-conflict peacebuilding. A wider perspective of post-conflict peacebuilding and reconciliation in the Solomon Islands shows the TRC was a minor player on a crowded stage. Many Solomon Islanders were unaware of the TRC, and those familiar with its acronym or name were often unaware of its role or mandate.

This paper contends that although the Solomon Islands TRC replicated the structure and operation of a truth commission based on a globalised and placeless theory of best practice in transitional justice, the TRC was not adequately contextualised or integrated with local approaches to reconciliation and peacebuilding and therefore fell short of its ambitious mandate. The commission did, however, produce a final report which in and of itself may serve as a positive outcome of the commission’s work. The experience of the Solomon Islands TRC demonstrates not only the conceptual and practical challenges faced and friction experienced of implementing a truth commission, but also the potential that truth commissions offer for promoting reconciliation and peacebuilding in post- conflict contexts in Melanesia.

This paper is divided into six parts. First, a brief background of the Solomon Islands conflict is outlined. Second, the recent evolution of the peacebuilding and transitional justice fields are discussed to offer a background for the Solomon Islands TRC. Third, the various conflict management and reconciliation practices in Solomon Islands are outlined, leading to the fourth part which introduces and describes the background of the Solomon Islands TRC. The challenges of and failures to adapt the TRC to the local context are illustrated in the fifth part, with a discussion focused on the mistranslation of the meaning and value of both ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation’ in post- conflict Solomon Islands. Finally, the sixth part argues that despite being initially championed by civil society actors, rather than becoming a ‘hybridised’ institution, the commission had a veneer of adaptation, and was ‘replicated’ according to normative transitional justice discourse.

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