Lessons for the WPS agenda in the Solomon Islands

Australia’s recent Defence white papers have noted that Australian forces have a clear mandate to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), which ‘recognises that security, stability and peace can only be achieved through a gender inclusive approach to conflict resolution and peace building’.

In our own backyard, Australia tried to fulfil this mandate when women were deliberately and strategically targeted for violence during the civil conflict in the Solomon Islands. Australia, as part of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), had a responsibility to implement UNSCR 1325: the mission fell under UN auspices and gender-based violence was an entrenched feature in the conflict.

Fundamentally, UNSCR 1325 recognises that it isn’t sufficient to ‘just add women and stir’ in peacekeeping. First, it isn’t sufficient simply to increase the number of women in peacekeeping forces. Second, the point of including women isn’t to improve the operational efficiency of those forces. That runs counter to the WPS agenda’s objective to demilitarise society and set up apparatuses for women’s autonomy and agency.

So, not only did Australia invest in the Solomon Islands’ security apparatuses, but also in its civic institutions. And RAMSI was conducted as a police-led mission—an institution very much associated with domestic order and domestic political values and priorities. For that reason, the police was better placed than the military to deliver positive peace.

Yet women’s rights in the Solomon Islands remain wanting. Rates of domestic and gender-based violence in the Solomon Islands are among the highest in the world. There’s only one female MP in the national parliament. Why, despite Australia’s political willingness and efforts to promote the WPS agenda in the Solomon Islands, do significant challenges remain?

What RAMSI’s broad mandate lacked was an overarching gender perspective. Women participated in frontline roles in RAMSI’s Participating Police Force. Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Sandi Peisley held the senior role of commander. Efforts were undertaken to protect women and prevent gender-based violence with the establishment of a gender-based violence in-country office in 2007. There was also the ongoing removal of major obstacles to prosecuting offenders in sexual assault cases.

But concentrating on reducing gender-based violence as the core method of applying UNSCR 1325 largely addressed women as victims and ignored their contribution to peace.

By way of example, women weren’t included in discussions about land tenure and dispute resolution. The plenary session on land rights held by RAMSI on its 10th anniversary in 2013 stated that ‘discussions on land matters can only be done between males of the tribe’.

While not immediately obvious, women’s land tenure and their role in dispute resolution—demonstrative of the broader lack of a gender perspective across all aspects of statebuilding—was a serious omission in RAMSI’s application of UNSCR 1325.

Firstly, conflict in the Solomon Islands, while ignited by ethnic tensions, was triggered by landowner grievances and acrimonious competition for land. Local contests over land played—and continue to play—into wider processes of statebuilding and political authority in the Solomon Islands. By excluding women from land matters, state institutions are to some extent reproduced as a masculine domain.

Secondly, women have long played an important role in resolving land disputes in the Solomon Islands. Some five of the Solomon Islands’ nine provinces follow matrilineal land inheritance. Then, RAMSI’s mission to assist in dispute resolution without including women in this process could be seen to more broadly weaken ‘kastom’—such as customary methods of resolving disputes over the use of community-owned land.

Putting the two together, women’s exclusion in land matters affects the structures for women’s participation across all levels of society.

It’s vital that post-conflict reconstruction takes women’s autonomy into broader consideration regarding land tenure and distribution in the Solomon Islands. This isn’t just a matter of mending RAMSI’s shortcomings but pre-empting flashpoints for future conflict.

Land-based tensions are likely to escalate. There has been an ongoing decline in the number of harvestable logs after decades of unregulated logging. As a result, mining, a highly contentious sector—one need only look at Bougainvillehas become the new economic mainstay. Climate change displacement will likely also lead to more conflict over land ownership.

Australia must both encourage the Solomon Islands to adopt and implement WPS principles, and give it the resources to do so. A good first step would be the Solomon Islands recognising the role of women in land management, including in the recording and registering of customary land. Processes for doing so could include establishing platforms for women’s participation in local and magistrate courts, and decentralising land administration facilities to bring decision-making closer to communities and kastom.

While these measures are admittedly only a small aspect of gender-sensitive statebuilding in the Solomon Islands, they are imperative.