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Constitutional questions over Solomon Islands’ coronavirus crackdown

Sweeping emergency powers must be used in a manner 'reasonably justifiable,' not as an excuse to marginalize opponents

Solomon Islands Gov. Gen. Sir David Vunagi

On 25 March, following a government decision, the Solomon Islands Gov. Gen. Sir David Vunagi declared a state of public emergency in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Solomon Islands remains one of a few countries worldwide that is still without a reported case of the novel coronavirus.

The Emergency Powers (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 authorized Prime Minster Manasseh Sogavare to make orders to protect the country from the pandemic and to prevent the spread of virus if there were cases. A travel ban was imposed, stopping international flights (except cargo flights), and schools closed. The maritime border with Papua New Guinea between Shortland and Bougainville was also shutdown.

The government’s decision to invoke a state of emergency was widely accepted as necessary in order to protect the country from Covid-19. On the face of it, the decision was also in line with the constitution.

But there is now an urgent need to examine whether the government has politicized the state of emergency, and whether its behavior really is constitutional after all.

The regulations give the prim minister the power to make orders to restrict the movement of people, vessels and aircraft, restrict assembly, suspend the media and declare a public place as emergency zone. These restrictions could infringe on people’s fundamental rights, such as the right to movement, free association and freedom of expression as provided for by the constitution.

The current government’s position is that the Covid-19 regulations restrict the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. However, such restriction is not absolute. As stated under section 16(7) of the constitution:

Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of the [fundamental rights provisions under the constitution] to the extent that the law in question makes in relation to any period of public emergency provision, or authorizes the doing during any such period of any thing