Privileging the community over individuals

Three major findings emerge in relation to the hypothesis that the focus of the kastom system is on peace and harmony in the community rather than individual justice. First, there is no doubt that restoring peace and harmony to the community is the guiding rationale behind most chiefly decisions.[100] A chief from Pentecost stated: ‘under the kastom system peace is collectively owned by a group or community and the community has got a collective accountability to peace.’[101] There appears to be an almost unspoken fear in the minds of many chiefs that their communities could at any moment erupt into chaos, and hence they must deal with conflicts quickly, and in a way that discourages other conflicts from flaring up. The metaphor of a fire was often used to convey the sense that small sparks must be contained to avoid a massive blaze.[102] Related to this is the fact that a person involved in an incident is not seen as an individual, but part of a family unit[103] or, as is increasingly the case in mixed communities, a member of a particular island.[104] Therefore the whole community quite literally is involved in the conflict, as they are likely to be either the victim’s or the defendant’s family or a close contact.[105] Families and not individuals also often make payments, in turn building up the network of obligations and counter-obligations ni-Vanuatu society is based on. For example, in Pentecost, the chief will make a payment on behalf of someone from his village. They do not have an obligation to pay back the chief with material objects, but there is an obligation to respect the chief. In Ambae, the chief will make the payment, but then the troublemaker must pay him back.

The second major finding is that the focus on ensuring peace and harmony in the community at times conflicts with the restorative notions of the kastom system. In other words, victims who might not really be happy with the decision are forced to accept it and ‘shake hands’ for the good of the community. This is particularly a problem for women, who are often made to stay in abusive relationships for the sake of community stability. One respondent explains that in kastom if there is a problem in the home then the decision is taken on the basis of the interests of the family unit; there is always an emphasis on putting the family unit back together. Traditionally, there is the concept that one suffers for the good of the community; the general approach is that couples have to stay together even if one has been wronged.[106]

The third finding is that the focus on ensuring peace and harmony in the community is being increasingly called into question as people engage more with modernity and start learning about individual rights and justice. This makes them more reluctant to accept that the needs of the community should prevail over their needs. Many women are also becoming increasingly aware that reference to the good of the community can conceal power dynamics that favour men over women. Thus a counsellor at the Vanuatu Women’s Centre observed that even if the kastom meeting created peace in the community, the woman still did not have peace, explaining further that the kastom system did not look at a woman as a whole being.

The tension between the needs of the community and individual rights is fully appreciated by many chiefs, but they see prioritising the community over the individual as a choice they must make. For example, the Secretary of the Malvatumauri stated, ‘[O]n Pentecost justice at times is not the priority, but peace is.’ This view was also expressed by another chief, who stated that in kastom the good of the community was paramount: individuals ‘will be given their day’ but if ‘at the end of the day’ the community would suffer then the community must be given priority.[107]

[100] I was told it was essential to ensure peace and harmony inside the community almost as much as the fact that in kastom both parties ‘won’.

[101] Lini, Hilda Motarilavoa 2006, Indigenous laws and kastom system, Paper presented at the Vanuatu Judiciary Law Conference, Port Vila, 2006, p. 2.

[102] This belief often appeared incongruous given the extremely peaceful and sleepy appearance of most villages in Vanuatu.

[103] See the comment about ‘dividuality’ in Endnote 10 in Chapter 6.

[104] See Chapter 1 under ‘Place’ for a discussion of islandism.

[105] Interview with a man from Ambae (Port Vila, 15 March 2004). He went on to note that to some extent this had changed now.

[106] Interview with a judge (also a chief) (Port Vila, 20 August 2004).

[107] Ibid.