What now for new Solomons anti-corruption law?

10:04 am on 2 August 2018

After several years of toing and froing the Solomon Islands parliament has now passed the country's first anti-corruption and whistleblower protection laws.

The Anti-Corruption Act 2017 aims to establish an Independent Commission Against Corruption to investigate and prosecute offenders mainly in the public sector but also in the private sector.

And the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2016 to protect those who come forward to report them.

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Photo: RNZI Koroi Hawkins

The Solomon Islands government led by prime minister Rick Hou has been applauded by people all over the country for taking these important forward steps in the fight against corruption.

But the chairperson of parliament's Bills and Legislations Committee, Matthew Wale, said the new anti-corruption act is defective.

The MP for Aoke Langa Langa has pointed to weak provisions on unjust enrichment and a clause allowing local custom or cultural practices to be used as a defence against corruption allegations.

Mr Wale said all point to a lack of political will to take a zero tolerance approach to corruption.

"The law is defective in a number of key areas however it is I think a giant leap forwards for Solomon Islands in terms of recognition of the problem of corruption and establishing mechanisms to substantively address it," Matthew Wale said.

One of the contentious parts of the new law is clause six which implies that the act does not apply retrospectively.

Matthew Wale says it is an unnecessary clause because this protection is already provided for in section 10(4) of the country's constitution.

The chief executive of Transparency Solomon Islands, Ruth Liloqula, said relevant or not, it paints a bad picture.

"The fact that it is in [the Act] portrays to the public that legislators have something to hide and that they are protecting themselves from being investigated. This is the interpretation for the public," he said.

The Bills and Legislation Committee has made several recommendations for strengthening the anti-corruption law.

One of them is for the commission, it seeks to set up, to be accorded more financial independence from government.

The legal director of the office of the Ombudsman in Solomon Islands, Nelson Dhita, said this is an ongoing operational issue for his organisation.

"For us we had requested additional funds and human resources but that was not given to us," he said.

"There is an additional overarching obligation on the government to adequately resource this anti-corruption agency and its sister organisations in order for them to be fully effective as expected in undertaking there mandate in fighting corruption in all its forms and at all levels," he said.

Nelson Dhita said his office also shares the concerns raised by others about the Act allowing traditional or cultural practices to be used as a defence against allegations of corruption particularly bribery.

"A zero tolerance approach should be taken. No room should be given for an excuse premising on custom at least in corruption offences," Nelson Dhita said.

Matthew Wale said the errant clauses in the new legislation reflect how politically divisive the legislation has been.

"This bill has taken a number of years to get to the floor of parliament and even then the approval was more acquiescence because of the public pressure," he said.

"Now that it is passed it is good to see it in practice. That it is implemented and with that I hope that there will be much more recognition in parliament that the law needs to be strengthened."

Among the committee's recommendations to achieve this is a call for the Act to provide more scope for investigating corruption in the private sector and suggestions that the commission be given powers to freeze funds and seize assets suspected of having been obtained corruptly.

But Transparency's Ruth Liloqula said her organisations main focus is pushing for the Anti-Corruption Act and its sister legislation the Whistleblowers Protection Act to come into effect.

The Whistleblowers Protection BIll 2016, passed on Tuesday, is designed to strengthen the Anti-corruption Act by protecting people who report corruption, maladministration or misconduct in the public and private sectors.

"We are hoping that there will be investigations and that people will come forward to report what they see and provide evidence without having to be afraid that they are going to be losing their jobs ... or that they wont be protected," Ruth Liloqula said.

According to the office of the Solomon Islands' Attorney General it is up to the prime minister Rick Hou to announce a commencement date for the new laws.

In the meantime, there have been renewed calls for the government to also bring Freedom of Information legislation to parliament and further strengthen the new-found appetite to root out corruption in Solomon Islands.

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