A Cultural Defense to Bribery? The Solomon Islands’ Approach

Gift-giving usually has positive connotations as an expression of love, respect, friendship, gratitude, or celebration. However, when the recipient is a public official, there is always the concern that the “gift” is nothing but a thinly-veiled bribe. For this reason, countries around the world have placed restrictions on the character and value of gifts that public officials are allowed to accept. But in societies where giving gifts – including, perhaps especially, to powerful or influential figures – is an important part of the culture, treating all (sufficiently large) gifts as unlawful bribes is more than usually challenging. Indeed, a recurring question for anticorruption reformers is whether or how anti-bribery law should make allowances for local cultural norms and practices, especially those related to gift-giving. This question – often framed as one of “cultural relativism” – frequently comes up in the context of developing countries (such as Indonesia or various Pacific islands), though it is not exclusive to such countries (see, for example, discussion of this same issue in South Korea).

One country that has recently faced the challenge of regulating cultural gift-giving to and by public officials is the Solomon Islands – a small state in the Pacific Ocean consisting of over nine hundred islands, a population of about 600,000, and a rich and fascinating history. For years, the Solomon Islands has been dealing with pervasive corruption at all levels of government, most notably in natural resources management, which has had disastrous ramifications for the country’s economic development (see here, here, and here). Like other Pacific islands, the Solomon Islands is home to a practice of traditional gift-giving to and by public officials, which in many other jurisdictions could be viewed as legally problematic. According to a local custom (as explained in an official government document), public officials, as members of their community, are “expected to contribute to community events such as weddings, funerals, feasts or church gatherings” and are “obligated to reciprocate with gifts if and when they visit communities and are presented with gifts.”

In July 2018, as part of a comprehensive national anticorruption scheme, the Solomon Islands’ Parliament enacted the much anticipated Anti-Corruption Act (ACA). The ACA is especially notable, and unusual, in its approach towards customary gifts and bribery. Instead of capping the monetary value or limiting the type of gifts which public officials are allowed to accept, the ACA introduced a new cultural defense to the offence of bribery of public officials. According to this defense, a public official who accepts or solicits something of value, as well as the individual who offers or gives it, is not guilty of bribery if the defendants can prove that their respective acts were conducted: (1) “in accordance with custom,” (2) “openly, in the course of a traditional exchange of gifts,” and (3) “for the benefit of a community or group of people and not for an individual.” According to Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela, the ACA’s cultural defense is required as part of the government’s obligation “to respect our customs and traditional cultures” as “a multi-ethnic post conflict country.” However, the cultural defense has been criticized by many, including the Parliament’s Bills and Legislation Committee (see here and here) and Transparency Solomon Islands, which referred to this defense as “a good example of bad law.”

In this post, I do not attempt to answer the question whether the Solomon Islands’ customary gift giving should be criminalized. I do wish to argue, however, that even if we assume that local gift-giving customs are worth protecting, the ACA’s cultural defense to bribery in its current form is highly susceptible to misuse and may undermine the government’s anticorruption efforts. Both the Solomon Islands and other jurisdictions that might be considering a similar cultural defense should take heed of four significant problems with the defense as currently written: Continue reading

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare: Time to Act Agressively, Quickly on Corruption

Below is the full text of remarks Solomon Islands Prime Mininster Manasseh Sogavare delivered September 8, 2016,  at a workshop in Honiara, Solomon Islands, to develop a national anticorruption strategy for the country 

Hon Premiers and your delegations, Members of the Steering Committee of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy, Representatives of the diplomatic corps and international organisations, senior officials from our integrity institutions and various institutions of our Government, representatives of our business community from the private sector, representatives from our civil society based organisations, ladies and gentlemen. Good morning to you all.

Let me say at the outset how pleased I am to see many of you attending this national workshop which undoubtedly, you would now know, is a precursor-event to the development and formulation of our country’s first ever National Anti-Corruption Strategy.

I had wanted to address you and the public on the subject matter of “our fight against corruption”, and I am pleased that this opportunity has come up. Like many of you, I am personally convinced that the fight against corruption is not just a fight by Government alone, it is a fight by all stakeholders. It is a fight that must be pursued by all of us collectively. Continue reading

Fighting Natural Resource Corruption: The Solomon Islands’ Challenge

 

On September 8 & 9 the Government of Solomon Islands, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the UN Development Program will host a workshop in Honiara to discuss the national anticorruption strategy the government is preparing.  One issue almost certain to arise is how the government can intensify the fight against corruption in the logging and mining sectors. Both sectors are critical to the nation’s economic well-being.  Commercial logging is currently the largest source of export revenues, but earnings are expected to decline sharply over the coming decade as forest reserves are depleted (due in no small part to corruption).  The hope is that increases in the mining of the country’s ample reserves of bauxite and nickel will replace losses from forestry.

Corruption in both sectors has been documented by scholars (here, here, and here for examples), the World Bank (here), and the Solomon Islands chapter of Transparency International.  The government has not only acknowledged the problem but has committed to addressing it.  Its recently released National Development Strategy 2016 – 2035 makes controlling corruption in logging and mining a priority.  As the strategy explains, corruption in the two sectors robs government of needed revenues and deprives local communities of the benefits from the development of resources on or under their lands.

Identifying a problem is one thing.  Coming up with solutions is another, particularly in the case of resource corruption in the Solomons where the combination of geography, poverty, and huge payoffs from corrupt deals make curbing it especially challenging.  The remainder of this post describes the hurdles Solomon Islanders and their government face and suggests ways they might overcome them.       Continue reading