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John Roughan: Solomons - Amnesty . . . Yet Again!

Amnesty . . . Yet Again!

John Roughan, Honiara Solomons 1 July 2003

Fijian people learnt a bitter lesson from the failed Coups of 1987. When a new coup raised its ugly head in 2000, Fiji's leaders knew exactly what to do. No more blanket amnesties for those who betray the nation, destroy its institutions and bring the nation to its knees. The main Coup leader, George Speight, faced trial, found guilty and was initially given the death sentence later reduced to life in prison. In a more recent court case, a leading Fijian politician and a journalist have both been jailed for life for their part in the Coup. Amnesty was indeed granted to some minor Coup actors but only after serious thought and reflection. Amnesty is too precious a gift to be lightly handed out.

Solomon Islands, on the other hand, gives amnesty out freely, easily without much thought for the good of the nation but with unusual sensitivity to those who led the coup, killed, destroyed and brought the nation to its knees. Does it not matter that we already have extended this great gift three times without seeing much in return. Guns and high powered arms were supposed to have been returned but three different times over an 18-month period, 500 guns still remain in illegal hands. Governments of the day have found it more convenient to simply extend amnesty dates. Politicians are convinced that amnesty is the best, no, the only way to go.

The Kemakeza government once more favors another amnesty. No matter what was solemnly pledged on 31 May last year, that the third amnesty was to be the very last one, our leaders want another amnesty. Here we are back tracking again, treating militants as our top priority rather than the nation's children. What are we saying our kids? Aren't we teaching them: If crimes are really ugly, hurt thousands of innocents but are committed by many Solomon Islanders, then the state will find a way to give full pardon. God forbid that a militant should spend a single day in prison, face court action or compensate those who have lost greatly.

Perhaps the logic behind the latest--this, the fourth amnesty--is a belief that militants will finally hand in their weapons, turn their behaviour around and become solid citizens once again. Perhaps those holding weapons are finally waking up to the tremendous power of a battalion of Australian, New Zealand, Pacific Islander soldiers waiting for them. Let's hope so! But can we not ask our reluctant militants to do more, much more, before becoming eligible for an amnesty?

Melanesian custom and tradition already teach the fundamental steps that must take place when groups of people experience serious communal conflict. Each language area and island group differs in detail on how to reconcile, what steps need to be taken to show deep sorrow and how to renew respect to a fractured community. However, simply handing over a pig or two, sharing strings of shell money and having a sit down feast has been never sufficient. Once there is a genuine reconciliation between those who murdered, raped, tortured, destroyed homes and the victims who lost terribly by these actions, then the village community itself would issue a Certificate of Amnesty to the offender.

A government sponsored amnesty, on the other hand, does none of this. In fact it sends out the opposite message, a political, juridical one. A government-sponsored amnesty officially puts the militant beyond the reach of the law. He no longer needs to seek forgiveness, reconciliation and can go on with life as if nothing important had happened. The victim, however, suffers a second pain. His suffering is seen as nothing, not really worth talking about. A whole country feeling this way becomes a sure recipe for future disasters.

After all, the state has not suffered as much as individual men and women, families and village communities. Doesn't it make sense for those who have lost most to reach down to the bottom of their hearts to forgive and as a show of forgiveness and present a Certificate of Amnesty. Only then, when true reconciliation has taken place with those most destroyed in life and livelihood, would the Certificate of Amnesty be handed over in a public ceremony. Only then, would former killers, rapists, torturers, destroyers be finally relieved of the burden of their crimes. A killer can not forgive himself . . . forgiveness comes from the other.

A state amnesty preserves a militant from court trial and possible jail sentence. But a state sponsored amnesty fails to produce peace of mind, an internal cleansing from the evil deed and the needed forgiveness from the victim and/or family. We have over the past four years cheapened the whole idea of amnesty. It's now almost worthless. Let's re-invest the great gift of amnesty with real value . . . allow victims who have suffered to present the Certificate of Amnesty. Then it means something!

Don't think such a process is too complicated, it would drag out too long or be too hard to administer. Melanesian people are experts in the reconciliation process. They have worked on these ceremonies for centuries. Parliamentarians, you now have a chance to re-vitalize the country once again. Don't choose the shortcut or cave in to those still holding on to guns. Rise up, re-make our beloved country so that the scourge of brother killing brother is never seen again in our land. Fiji learnt its lesson after suffering three coups. Can we do better and learn from our first?

J. Roughan
30 June 2003

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