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Guns in the Solomon Islands

Summary

During five years of ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands from 1998 to 2003, thousands of firearms, the most dangerous of which were stolen from local police armouries,1 2 were the instruments most responsible for destabilising the nation and terrifying its population.3

In the regional debate surrounding the dispatch of a multinational armed intervention force to the capital, Honiara in July 2003, and without apparent dispute, illicit guns were declared the most immediate impediment to the nation’s recovery and redevelopment.4 When the peacekeepers landed, nothing was accorded more urgency than civilian disarmament and the destruction of all firearms and ammunition.5 6

The drive to collect and destroy small arms in the Solomon Islands, achieved with the conspicuous support of civil society, is now seen as a rare and notable success.7 8 9

With more than 6,000 firearms destroyed,10 11 a disarmed local police force and the suspension of firearm licensing for civilians since 1999,12 the Solomon Islands remain almost free of commercially manufactured firearms. Yet while rumours of remaining weapon caches and small-scale circulation of illicit ‘high-powered firearms’ and home-made guns persist,13 14 renewed misuse of small arms should not be discounted.

Civilian Possession

In 1999, before weapon disposal campaigns began, as many as 800 factory-made firearms were lawfully held by civilians in the Solomon Islands.15 16 With self-loading firearms and handguns prohibited by law since 1967,17 these private guns were invariably single-shot or bolt-action rifles, and shotguns. By July 2003, following the theft of hundreds of government guns from police armouries, the nation’s total stockpile was estimated at between 2,640 and 3,520 firearms of all types, more than a thousand of which were ‘high-powered firearms’13 and other commercially manufactured small arms.18 Given the 1999 suspension of civilian gun ownership, all firearms were by this time unlawfully held.19 20

In November 2004, following three gun amnesties, one evaluation reported that ‘roughly 250 high-powered weapons remained in the community.’10 Three years later in 2007, the number of illegal firearms of all types still in private possession — including home-made guns — was estimated to be 1,775.21 This suggests a rate of civilian small arms possession of 0.35 firearms per 100 population, and ranks the Solomon Islands in the low range of private gun ownership among Pacific island nations.22

Permitted Firearms

Even before the peak conflict years, civilians were not allowed to possess shortened or converted guns, handguns, assault rifles or any automatic or semi-automatic weapons. Firearms were also prohibited by calibre, including those chambered for .300, .303, .38 and .45 inch, 7.62 and 9mm ammunition.23 24 17 Following a 2000 peace agreement, imitation firearms, airguns and toy guns were also banned.25 26 27

Despite the various prohibitions in law, by 2001, a peak year of conflict, high demand is said to have raised the price of a black-market M-16 assault rifle to US$1,100.28 This was a reported asking price, and may not represent a successful sale. Between 1996 and 2005, asking prices for AK-47s were reported from US$1,800 to US$2,400.29 To date, no example of this family of Kalashnikov assault rifle has been found, nor reliably reported as being used in the Solomon Islands.

Government Guns

In common with most Pacific island nations, the Solomons have no armed forces.30 31 In 2002, the Royal Solomon Islands Police force included 1,442 sworn officers. Of these, only select paramilitary units had been routinely armed from a state arsenal estimated to contain 1,875 firearms.31 32 Easily stolen, many of these weapons fuelled the peak period of armed violence in the Solomon Islands, from 2000 to 2003.1

Within hours of its arrival in July 2003, peacekeepers of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) began to collect all firearms and to disarm local police. Four years later, in January 2007, a newly elected prime minister attempted to re-introduce an armed ‘Close Personal Protection Unit,’ or palace guard.33 After loud public protest, supported by diplomatic pressure from Pacific neighbours, the controversial plan to send 50 hand-picked Solomon Islanders to Taiwan for weapon training was abandoned. Instead, the Solomon Islands government agreed to continue its reliance for armed protection on a small number of police officers seconded by regional neighbours, including Papua New Guinea (PNG).34 35 36 In 2009, officers of the Royal Solomon Islands Police remained unarmed.

Gun Death, Injury and Crime

Complete figures on firearm-related crime, morbidity and mortality have been difficult to obtain in the Solomon Islands, particularly for years of conflict.37 Guns are thought to have been used to kill 150-200 people, and to injure perhaps another 430-460 during the main period of armed violence.38

In the years 1998-2002, the Honiara National Referral Hospital treated 113 injuries inflicted with ‘high velocity’ firearms, peaking at 55 in 2000. In the same period, the hospital treated 57 patient injuries caused by ‘low velocity’ firearms. These included wounds from shotguns, rimfire rifles and home-made firearms, peaking at 31 cases in 1999.39 Since national disarmament, ‘fear subsided and people went about their lives unimpeded,’ and once again gun homicide and criminal shootings are ‘virtually unheard of’.9 40

Trafficking and Smuggling

There is no evidence of substantial illegal gun trafficking into the Solomon Islands since 2000. During periods of conflict there did exist a minor 'ant-trade' between PNG's Bougainville province and the West Solomons, but price differentials indicate that small arms trafficking in the southerly direction was not profitable. Although ammunition must be illegally imported, to date no quantity of mass-manufactured small arms has been connected to external (smuggled) sources. Firearm serial number traces almost invariably lead to known, previously lawful Solomon Island stockpiles, either civilian or state-owned.41

Cost of Gun Violence

For this small, under-developed nation the penalties paid for years of armed conflict were said to be incalculable. In 2003, the Chairman of the Peace Monitoring Council of the Solomon Islands, Sir Peter Kenilorea lamented: "We were once able to draw tourists from across the globe, tourists who were in search of the perfect Pacific paradise — warm, friendly people, clear blue waters, white beaches, a wealth of culture and custom found nowhere else in the world. However, I fear that this image has been shattered by the recent crises in our region. We shouldn‘t be surprised if people view our region as one characterized by coups, militancy, instability and general lawlessness."42

The national census counted more than 35,000 Solomon Islanders made homeless in the conflict years 1998-99. By October 2000, the number of displaced villagers was calculated to be 40–50,000.43

Basic human rights such as education and healthcare, access to justice and markets were denied. Youths were forced at gunpoint to join the militants. Development programmes, schools and health clinics were shut down, leaving babies to be born unvaccinated, their mothers hiding in the bush. Most industries folded as armed violence pushed an already fragile economy to the verge of collapse.44 45 Only the solicited invasion of 2003, the peacekeepers of RAMSI, and sudden, consensus disarmament returned the Solomon Islands to tranquillity.

Gun Control Law

Firearm regulation in the Solomon Islands is ranked as restrictive, rather than permissive.46 Nevertheless, in its statement to a United Nations conference in 2003, the Solomon Islands echoed an earlier finding of the Pacific Islands Forum, that inadequate legislation and enforcement are leading contributors to small arms-related problems in the region.47

The Ministry of Police, National Security and Justice is the primary legislative authority for small arms. Responsible for law enforcement coordination, implementing laws on registration, record keeping and storage of firearms, the Ministry also coordinates procedures of the Royal Solomon Islands Police. The Commissioner of Police is the principal licensing authority.48 The Ministry of Finance is responsible for customs controls relating to small arms.49

Firearms are regulated by a variety of legislation in the Solomon Islands: 50

• Firearms and Ammunition Act 1968, No. 4 [cap. 80]
• Penal Code (Amendment) Act 1987, No. 3 [cap. 26]
• Firearms and Ammunition (Amendment) Act 1989, No. 17
• Penal Code 1996 [cap. 5]
• Amnesty Act 2000, No. 8
• Amnesty Act 2001, No. 3
• Firearms and Ammunition (Amendment) Act 2001

Gun Owner Licensing

In April 1999, due to social and political unrest, the Solomon Islands invoked existing legislation19 20 to suspend all civilian firearm licences, and to collect and impound registered firearms held by licensed owners.12 Most owners were trusted leaders who volunteered to give up their guns for safety’s sake, and police later reported ‘full compliance’ with this requirement.51 Ten years later, in 2009, possession of guns remained illegal.

Genuine Reason

National legislation remains in place for firearm licensing, for which the minimum age of eligibility is 21 years.20 52 Although proof of a genuine reason for firearm possession is not defined in law, police officers must satisfy themselves of an applicant’s ‘good reason’ for gun ownership. In practice, this has been restricted to hunting and fishing.53

The law stipulates that any firearm licences be renewed annually,54 and that police may refuse or revoke a firearm licence without assigning any reason other than public safety or danger to the peace.55 20

The law also stipulates safe storage for privately owned firearms,56 57 mandates prompt reporting of any gun loss, theft or destruction,58 and limits each gun owner to a maximum permitted quantity of ammunition, as specified under their firearm licence.59 Firearm safety and proficiency training is not required.60

Record Keeping

Records of all small arms in the possession of licensed gun owners, and of any transfer of guns or ammunition between them must be entered in a firearm register accessible to police. Only police or their Minister may approve the sale or transfer of a firearm or ammunition from one person to another, with each transaction recorded by a licensed gun dealer.61 62

Marking and Tracing

All firearms must be marked with a manufacturer’s serial number. If no such number exists, police may add a permanent identifier before issuing a licence. It is an offence to forge, alter or deface firearm markings.63

Collection and Seizure

In August 2000, under the terms of the Townsville Peace Agreement, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) launched its first gun amnesty. This aimed to collect and destroy between 2,640 and 3,520 illegally held, mass-manufactured small arms.64 18 65 By July the following year, the first report of the Solomon Islands to the United Nations small arms Programme of Action (UNPoA)66 identified as the nation’s immediate priority the ‘complete disarmament or surrender of the more than 500 weapons’ remaining.67

By August 2003, 3,730 weapons, including 659 military-style small arms and 300,000 rounds of ammunition, most of which had been stolen from police armouries, had been handed in for destruction.68 This represented 90-95 per cent of factory-made small arms in civilian hands. The total number of lethal weapons of all types surrendered since the first amnesty in 2000 was between 5,800 and 6,000. These were publicly destroyed by burning, dismantling and dumping at sea.10 69 65 70 71 72

In November 2004, following three gun amnesties, one evaluation reported that ‘roughly 250 high-powered weapons remained in the community.’10 Three years later in 2007, the number of firearms of all types still in private possession was estimated to be 1,775.21

Despite concentrated weapon-collection measures, some illegal private small arms remain hidden. These include home-made firearms, commercial handguns and long guns, and undoubtedly a number of military-style rifles. On occasion, guns are still used to intimidate, but firearm-related homicides and criminal shootings are now ‘virtually unheard of.’40

Gun Free Zones

The Governor-General has the authority to prohibit small arms and ammunition in any part of the Solomon Islands, and to grant exceptions to allow some people to possess and carry weapons in any such area.19 73

Established in 2002 by the Peace Monitoring Council (PMC), the Solomon Islands Weapons-Free Villages (WFV) campaign harnessed a strong desire within the population to eradicate small arms from their lives. The WFV used peer pressure to stigmatise illegal guns and their owners, both within communities and between neighbouring villages. Church groups and women were vital to this campaign, acting as recruiters and peace monitors.74 Once the PMC had determined a village to be free of small arms, a ceremony was held for community leaders to sign a ‘Weapons-Free Declaration,’ a pledge to maintain gun-free status.75

Although about 1,000 villages voluntarily joined the campaign, no measurement of its impact on the national small arms stockpile seems to exist. One report suggested that although the ‘gun free zones’ campaign was an effective mechanism for rebuilding conflict-torn communities, it had little impact as a disarmament mechanism.76

Penalties

Penalties for breaching gun control law in force since 1967 include:77

• Unlicensed sale, purchase or possession of a firearm or ammunition: five years imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $3,000 (ten years and/or $5,000 if in a weapon-free zone).59
• Unlicensed dealing, manufacture or repair of, parts or ammunition: two years imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $1,000.61
• Illegal manufacture of firearms or ammunition: ten years imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $5,000.78
• Illegal import or export of firearms or ammunition: 12 months imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $500.79

In August 2003, at the conclusion of the nation’s most successful firearm amnesty and collection programme,80 64 more stringent penalties came into effect for illicit small arms ownership. Maximum fines for gun possession and misuse rose from SB$1,000 to SB$25,000, while maximum prison terms were increased from two years to ten years. Widely reported before and during the amnesty, these sanctions were seen as having contributed to the success of the weapon disposal campaign.81

Definitions

Solomon Islands legislation defines the terms ‘firearm,’ ‘ammunition,’82 83 and ‘imitation firearm.’26 The term ‘high-powered firearm’ has also been defined.13

Production and Trade

Solomon Islands legislation includes controls on the manufacture,78 repair, sale or transfer,61 62 import and export84 85 of firearms, their ammunition and parts.60

Manufacture

Licensed firearm manufacture is not permissible in the Solomon Islands. The Minister or Commissioner of Police must approve the establishment of an arms arsenal, effectively prohibiting the manufacture of guns and ammunition.78

Home-made Guns

In the Solomon Islands conflict, illicit ‘craft’ gun making added significantly to the weaponry used by combatants, mainly as a substitute for unaffordable commercial firearms.86 In the three years to January 2004, 35 per cent of the weapons confiscated or handed in for destruction were illegally-made firearms.87

The use of home-made guns was made possible by ammunition abandoned in the Solomon Islands during World War II, most of it in .30 and .50 calibre. The half-inch machine gun round in particular can — at some risk — be fired from a barrel cut from common steel water pipe.88 These craft-manufactured firearms were originally very crude, but as time passed, production became slightly more refined.89

That said, the relative importance of home-made weapons in the Pacific has often been overstated. In reality, a length of water pipe firing mismatched and/or ancient ammunition can be as dangerous to the user as it is to the target, and craft manufacture is seen as a last resort.

Single-shot, smoothbore pistols and long guns are the only home-made firearms discovered to date, and these cannot be compared in terms of range, accuracy, and firepower to mass-produced, repeating firearms with rifled barrels and matched ammunition. There is no evidence of local production of rifled barrels, nor of multi-shot firing mechanisms such as pump-action or lever-action, semi-automatic or automatic firearms in the south western Pacific.90

Arms Imports

Only a licensed arms dealer may import small arms or ammunition to the Solomon Islands, and only then with prior police approval and a valid import licence. Guns and ammunition sent through the mail must not be delivered until an import licence is produced.84 17

One of the most controversial arms imports in recent Pacific history occurred in 1997, when the US State Department approved a US$4 million deal between US gun dealer Century Arms and the then Solomon Islands government.91 Corruption was widely suspected, with independent assessments putting the value of the military shipment, including M-16s, ammunition, and two light aircraft, at only US$700,000 to US$1 million — less than a quarter the amount to be paid to Century Arms.92

Amid fears that the small arms were destined for rebels in nearby Papua New Guinea, the shipment was diverted from its course to the Solomon Islands, and at the request of the newly elected Ulufa’alu government, impounded by Australia and New Zealand.91 In 2006, at the request of the Solomon Islands government, New Zealand destroyed the weapons.93

In the years 1998-2000, the Solomon Islands imported US$199,406 worth of small arms and ammunition from the United States.94 In the period 2000-07, six foreign countries issued licences to export small arms and ammunition to the Solomon Islands, for a total value of US$391,048. Australia approved handgun and shotgun exports worth US$180,089, along with 'bombs, grenades, ammunition, mines, & others' valued at US$26,960, for a total of US$207,049, or 52 per cent of the international total. France and Italy approved small arms and ammunition shipments totalling US$175,408 in value (45 per cent of the total), while New Zealand, Fiji and Denmark made up the balance of US$8,591, or two per cent. As Solomon Islands authorities do not appear to have declared the arrival of these imports, actual values delivered remain uncertain.95

Australia and New Zealand, as major trading partners and donor nations to Pacific island nations, have in recent years become wary of inadvertently fuelling violent conflict in the region by providing arms. In their role as ‘choke points’ for goods exported and re-exported to the Pacific, both nations now closely examine, and in many cases refuse export licence applications for small arms and ammunition. These restrictions have affected the Solomon Islands.92

Solomon Islands port authorities allow visiting seafarers who declare their imported firearms to keep them under lock and key until departure, either on board their vessel or with local police.84 96

Arms Exports

In order to export firearms or components, the exporter must have an export licence.85 Police may proscribe places and types of export and may prohibit exportation of certain weapons.97

Arms Brokering

No controls over arms brokering exist. The stated government position on brokering is that: ‘As no SALW [small arms and light weapons] brokers currently operate in Solomon Islands, no national legislative or administrative procedures are currently in place to regulate SALW brokering.’98

Diversion of State Stocks

For 30 years prior to the outbreak of violent conflict in the Solomon Islands, the importation and possession of handguns and self-loading long guns had been banned. For this reason, very few military-grade weapons were available to civilians.15 16 17

Then in 2000, the paramilitary wing of the Royal Solomon Islands Police colluded directly with Malaitan militants in the theft of about 500 high-powered firearms, including assault rifles and light machine guns.2 2 99 The armoury raids were followed by a sudden increase in the misuse and impact of illicit firearms.100 In later analysis, almost all the factory-made weapons and ammunition used to escalate the 1998-2003 conflict were found to have been sourced from police armouries.101 67 Not all of these had been purchased by police. Ironically, private firearms surrendered in 1999 by licensed gun owners for safe storage in police custody had in effect been handily centralised, for later theft by militants.

Secure Storage

The security of state-owned small arms in the Solomon Islands has since been of great concern. One audit of the central police armoury found no proper accountability for safe storage of firearms, ammunition and explosives, reporting that ‘little knowledge existed... on weapons accounting and servicing procedures.’102

With the assistance of Australian and New Zealand police and defence advisors, the physical security of state armouries and accountability of personnel in the Solomon Islands have since been greatly improved (see International Assistance). In effect since 2002, the current RSIP Firearms Policy requires armoury staff to record a daily count of small arms, augmented by weekly and quarterly audits by senior police.103

Since the RAMSI intervention of 2003, there seem to have been no published reports of gun theft from state-owned armouries in the Solomon Islands.

International Agreements

In 2009, the Solomon Islands had neither signed nor ratified the 2001 Firearms Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.104

A United Nations member state since 1978, and a foundation participant in the UN small arms Programme of Action (UNPoA),66 the Solomon Islands contributed a statement to the UNPoA in 2001,105 then delivered national reports in 200349 and 2004106 A Solomon Islands national point of contact has been nominated to the UNPoA, but to date no national coordination mechanism has been advised.107 49 The Solomon Islands Government does not involve civil society stakeholders in its representations to the UNPoA.108

As a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, the Solomon Islands endorsed the 1998 Honiara Initiative,109 110 which led to the Nadi Framework for small arms control in the Pacific.111 In a unanimous vote in 2003, the 16 nations of the Forum adopted the resulting Draft Model Weapons Control Bill,112 a template designed to encourage progressive harmonisation of gun control laws across the region as member states update their national legislation.113 114 In 2009, the Solomon Islands had yet to adapt its firearm legislation in line with the Nadi Framework.

The Solomon Islands exchange firearm trafficking intelligence with regional neighbours through the Oceania Customs Organisation (OCO), and receive related assistance from the Pacific Islands Forum Regional Security Committee (FRSC).115 The nation is not a party to any other known international agreements to curb the proliferation of illicit firearms.116 117

International Assistance

Both the Solomon Islands government and local civil society organisations have received development assistance designed to reduce the misuse of small arms, most often from Australia and New Zealand.118 The 2002-04 Weapons Free Village Campaign received AusAID and NZAID support through a UNDP trust fund.119

In the years 2002-04, to implement the secure storage recommendations of the UNPoA, Australia and New Zealand helped construct and upgrade the Solomon Islands police armoury and ammunition magazines, and provide ongoing staff training in weapon maintenance and management.120 121 122 103 123

In 2002-05, Australia and New Zealand supported all five major small arms-related research projects in the region, several of which surveyed the Solomon Islands.124 125 126 127 128 Both Australia and New Zealand support Pacific island NGOs to attend regional UNPoA workshops, and include local NGO advisers in their delegations to the United Nations.108

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