Solomon Islands: Protests around Malaita province no-confidence vote dispersed while nurses’ union remains suspended
The state of civic space in the Solomon Islands is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor after it was downgraded in December 2021. Among concerns documented previously were press freedom restrictions, violations of the right to freedom of assembly and hostility towards civil society groups.
Despite opposition from civil society groups, in September 2022, the Solomon Islands’ government voted to delay its national elections. The prime minister justified the delay by claiming the financial burden of holding national elections and the Pacific Games in the same year was too high. Opposition leader Matthew Wale said: ‘the delay was part of a scheme by the prime minister to remain in power for longer than is necessary at the cost of citizens’ right to vote’.
In recent months, the police have used excessive force to disperse a protest around the ousting of an outspoken provincial leader, while the nurses’ union remains suspended since 2020 for holding a sit-in protest. The Ombudsman office has also called for freedom of information legislation to be passed.
Protests around ousting of anti-China leader disrupted by police
In February 2023, police in the Solomon Islands town of Auki in Malaita province used excessive force to disrupt a protest after a prominent provincial leader lost a controversial no-confidence vote.
Daniel Suidani, premier of the Malaita province, was ousted on 7th February 2023 after 17 provincial assembly members voted to remove him. The motion filed by an ally of the prime minister in the assembly alleged Suidani had illegally solicited money from a Chinese-owned mining company, inappropriately used government finances to pay the wages of his personal security guards and was guilty of financial mismanagement.
According to ABC News, following the vote, more than a hundred protesters attempted to pass through a police cordon, with the police firing tear gas to disperse the crowd. However, police claimed that only hand-held smokes were used and that some protesters threw stones. There were no reports of injuries, but Auki was placed under lockdown.
In April 2023, Suidani was then disqualified from the Malaita provincial assembly due to his refusal to 'recognise the One China Policy as well as colluding with Taiwan in defiance of the sovereign decision of the national government to recognise the One China Policy'.
Suidani has been one of the most outspoken critics of the country’s relationship with China and objected to the national government signing a controversial security pact with China in 2022, as well as the decision to break ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing in 2019. He has banned Chinese companies from the province and accepted development aid from the United States. The premier also repeatedly pushed for Malaita to declare independence from the Solomon Islands.
His supporters claim all three were orchestrated and bank-rolled by the Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's administration - an accusation he has denied. Academic Dr. Tess Newton Cain said that use of no confidence votes in Solomon Islands is “longstanding” and is often used as a “political tactic.”
Nurses union still suspended under emergency law for sit-in protest
Concerns remain about the ongoing suspension of the Solomon Island Nursing Association (SINA), the main body representing nurses in the country. According to reports, due to these actions “nurses are too afraid to speak up on deteriorating working conditions and welfare problems”.
In 2020, the government suspended SINA under the Emergency Powers (COVID-19) (No.3) Regulations 2020 (“the Regulations”), Processions and Public Assemblies Act and the Essential Services Act for proposing a strike and then holding a sit-in protest seeking a COVID-19 allowance. Fourteen nurses were also suspended because of the protest and were accused of ‘incitement’.
Opposition Leader Matthew Wale said that the suspension of the union during the state of emergency was ‘drastic’ and that their claims were never heard nor addressed. He called on the government to reinstate SINA.
It was also reported that hundreds of experienced nurses have signed up for jobs overseas due to the government’s failure to address their welfare and outstanding issues.
Ombudsman calls for freedom of information legislation to be passed
In December 2022, the Office of the Ombudsman called on the government to pass Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation as a matter of priority.
According to the Ombudsman, Article 12 of the National Constitution of the Solomon Islands provides for the freedom to receive and communicate ideas and information without interference, as part of the right to freedom of expression. However, despite considering FOI legislation for more than a decade, it has yet to take steps to pass such a law.
The government was reminded that the right to information is globally recognised as an integral part of the fundamental right to freedom of expression. This right can be found in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Sustainable Development Goals also recognise this explicitly in SDG-16, Target 16.10 which calls on all governments to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”.
As previously documented, in 2021 during the UN Universal Periodic Review, the United Nations country team noted that it was generally difficult or impossible for individuals to access information, including information about themselves, through any government department. Two countries recommended that the government introduce freedom of information legislation in compliance with international standards.