Who We Are

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

After more than a month’s delay, prison escapee John Bule’s body was finally put to rest this week. While his family may have some degree of solace now that they can properly mourn his passing, and in spite of Government entreaties to allow the justice system to work, many feel that much remains to be said about how we treat our prisoners.

In a searing letter to the Editor earlier this week, one man described how his children and their nanny had been terrorised by knife-wielding thieves. The nanny was only saved from rape or worse by the man’s timely arrival.

If we had Capital Punishment,” he writes, “I would gladly pull the trigger on this criminal.

I know exactly how he feels. Nearly a decade after the fact, I have only to think about one man and I begin to shake with rage.

Years ago, I lived in a frontier town smaller than Port Vila. I found evidence that one of its residents had been molesting children for over a decade, and that one of them, a 12 year old girl, had since committed suicide.

I sat at home for hours, trying to decide whether to call the police, or simply to pull my rifle from its locker and shoot him myself. In the end, I picked up the telephone, not the gun.

When we talk about respecting the rights of criminals and the rule of law, it’s easy to lose sight of why we argue for them. For me, it’s definitely not out of some namby-pamby desire to sit around the campfire singing Kumbayah. It’s not out of kindness at all.

It’s about who we are as a society, and who we want to be.

Shortly after Bule died, I talked for hours with a chief from Paama. I wanted to learn how such an affair would be dealt with in kastom. The chief replied emphatically that these events could not have happened in the past.

Two generations ago, Bule would never have been allowed to stray as far as he did. According to this chief, a serial transgressor would have faced an escalating series of fines and penalties, authorised by the chief and enforced by the young men of the village. Bule would either have been intimidated sufficiently to come back into the fold – or he would have been executed. Either would have occurred long before his final arrest, detention and unsanctioned death.

Bule reached this point of deadly crisis because a gap has appeared in society, where neither kastom nor the law operate as they should. The distance from island to town, the newfound mobility affecting Vanuatu society, has left so-called ‘town’ chiefs with little power to enforce their views. While many chiefs – this one included – serve a useful and active role in their communities, that role has become more advisory than authoritative.

Because Bule had passed beyond kastom’s ken, the chief felt there was nothing he could do but wash his hands of the whole unfortunate affair. “Bule i mestem rod long taem finis,” he told me. By ignoring the counsel of his family and his community, Bule had arrived in a place where helping hands could no longer reach him.

The chief refused to be drawn into a discussion of the propriety of the actions of those who arrested Bule. That, he said, was the Law, and had nothing to do with kastom.

A society is defined by how it treats those in its care. In Vanuatu, that often means that community rights trump the individual’s. In the Western legal justice system, individual rights are paramount. This creates a tension that subverts the ability of the community to police itself. In Vanuatu’s case, it erodes the chief’s mandate with regard to justice and social order, placing police and legal justice in his place. If they fail, the entire system fails.

But legal justice ignores something central to kastom: victim’s rights. Kastom requires reconciliation of community members; it keeps miscreants from straying too far, sometimes forcibly.

It does have its shortcomings, and its emphasis on peace-making rather than justice is often baffling, even appalling, to outsiders. But it is effective in one critical respect: It ensures that the community remains largely healthy and peaceful for all.

More than anything else, kastom’s continuing influence has kept Vanuatu from falling into the same pit of lawlessness and disorder as PNG and the Solomons.

It is not, therefore, the mere idea that members of the Vanuatu Mobile Force beat and killed Bule that I find troubling. It is the fact that, by allowing some to act without restraint, without any rules whatsoever, we as a society are moving further towards a culture that sanctions lawlessness. We have only to look at Port Moresby, with its rampant, uncontrollable violence and its often deadly law enforcement, to see where Port Vila will be in a decade.

If, that is, we don’t take steps now to bring our troublemakers back within society’s grasp.

Human rights are not abstract issues. How we treat people – all people – defines who we are.