Traditional role of chiefs, need for greater youth interest in custom and culture

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DEAR EDITOR, we read in the local newspapers last week the story told by journalists who had returned to Honiara after making a visit to Luaniua in the Ontong Java region of the remote Malaita Outer Islands (MOI).

The story they filed revealed how the House of Chiefs for Luaniua and Pelau was playing a key role in maintaining law and order despite there not being a police presence.

Quoting what the journalist were told by Trevis Kilatu the Chiefs continue to play the role of law enforcement and their role is key to maintaining the upkeep of the law at all times.

Trevis Kilatu reportedly told the journalists the House of Chiefs is highly respected in the two islands.

“Chiefs continue to play the role of the law enforcement agencies in the Ontong Java region of the Malaita Outer Islands (MOI).

“This is because the atoll does not have any police post or officers.” Mr Kilatu said.

I was very pleased to read of the work of the House of Chiefs and the work the Chiefs are continuing to do in order to enforce the law and maintain the peace in the MOI.

We have all read of the need for ‘transformational change’ and leadership in the media over several years and, indeed, I have contributed my own thoughts on both matters.

As leadership is also an essential element in the making of transitional change, I would like to use the example of what we have been told about the way traditional justice is still being exercised by Chiefs in the MOI to focus a little about the need for transformational change in examining the need to bring a shift in the way Solomon Islands traditional justice system has broken down and where leadership is needed to see a restoration of the greater role played by chiefs and elders at the village community level.

Since independence, customary or traditional law has not had a significant role in the progression or development of the Solomons modern legal system, despite it still being possibly the best way to provide for local, village level, social regulation, conflict management and, vitally, reconciliation for most communities.

I believe the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) had law reform on its agenda, but nothing seemed to change benefitting traditional law.

It seem to me that beyond that of the formal law and justice sectors, local demand for a reform in the law has been relatively weak. Why is this? Is it because the formal law system is of marginal interest and that the primary needs of rural, village people regard their customary or traditional laws best for their communities?

If my assumption is correct, then it brings me back to the question of leadership and leadership that I consider is needed to restore the authority of chiefs, elders and native or local court jurisdiction.

We might now consider the benefits that might inspire the leadership needed to recognize the importance of what I have written so far.

In the context of Solomon Islands existing national laws, based on introduced, adapted common law, customary law, over time has proven to be, with some exceptions, the main source of social regulation and conflict management and, yes, bring in here the ongoing concerns over of domestic and family violence.

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Why, again? Well, in customary law there is always an emphasis on restorative justice in dealing with intra-community issues and the use of compensation reconciling parties to conflict and restoring social harmony. All very well, I hear, but how will this return to customary law put a stop to the blight of family violence? It will take time I have no doubt with the widespread problems associated with alcohol, in all forms, and now drug abuse in the form of cultivated marijuana.

Firstly, tribal leaders must be given the authority and respect they deserve to exercise authority and to demonstrate their community leadership. What would we see as benefits? Examples I hope would be:

Problems to be resolved would likely be viewed as relating to the whole community rather than to a small number of individuals. Resolution would lead to collective – rather than individual interests;

Decisions to be made would most likely be based on a process of consultation;

There would be added emphasis on reconciliation and restorative justice;

The would be evidential and procedural informality and flexibility;

Consensual decision-making and

Enforcement through social pressure rather than coercion.

In my attempt to link ‘leadership’ with a return to the recognition of a functioning traditional justice system, I hope that I will have succeeded, in some way, to convince those international Agencies now determined to tackle the social ills of our domestic and family violence and who are willing and able to put money where it matters, to give thought to how our chiefs and elders, given a restoration of their authority and pride, can be leaders at the forefront of the national challenges we face today.

“In 1984 the Isabel Provincial Assembly passed a Council of Chiefs Resolution to recognize a Council of Chiefs and empower it “with respect to matters of tradition and custom.” What do such matters consist of? The first two of ten points listed were: (1) power to settle disputes in customary law and (2) customary land, reefs, and sea.

“Importantly, among several other duties listed was the need to “reviving and promoting traditions and customs,” “improving communication between elders and young people,” and “taking an active involvement in the setting of land boundaries and the settlement of land disputes.” Source: ‘The Politics of Tradition (G White, June 1991}

Today, there is an obvious and very important need for “reviving and promoting traditions” which requires that young people take an interest in local culture. In particular, in the knowledge of local history and ancestry.

Yours sincerely

Frank Short

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