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RAMSI, a historical perspective – Appreciation and Regrets   

LAST week Solomon Islands new High Commissioner to Australia, Collin David Beck, presented his Letters of Introduction to the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, at the Office of the Prime Minister in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Building in Sydney.

Mr Beck acknowledged Australia’s role and support for the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and its ongoing drawdown process.

He conveyed to Prime Minister Turnbull, the Solomon Islands Government’s intention to host an event to mark the conclusion of the RAMSI ‘HelpemFren Mission.’

His Excellency said it will be an opportunity for the Solomon Islands Prime Minister, the Government and People to convey their appreciation to all leaders of RAMSI participating countries and expressed hope that the Australian Prime Minister will be able to be in Solomon Islands for the occasion.

Prime Minister Turnbull, in turn, reportedly affirmed that Australia remains committed to its engagements with Solomon Islands and expressed the hope that the bilateral relations between the two countries will reach new heights during his tenure.

It is entirely appropriate for Solomon Islands to be planning a special event to acknowledge the role Australia, New Zealand and the other participating countries have all played in the RAMSI intervention in aid of the Solomon Islands since 2003.

It is fair to say that RAMSI has been generally successful and most certainly committed billions of dollars into reforming the police service in terms of training, career development and in the re-furbishing and construction of police facilities, in ridding the country of guns, although not entirely, gradually improving public services, the judiciary, giving guidance on good governance and helping with the processes for foreign investment, to name just a few of the many notable achievements since 2013.

If one reads the Conclusions penned by the notable academic Dr Clive Moore when he edited the publication, ‘Looking Beyond RAMSI’ following the 10th Anniversary of RAMSI’s intervention, one might get the impression that when RAMSI departs next June much work will still need to be done to develop the nation regarding gender equality, further reform in the public service, customary land registration, the logging industry and re-a forestation, urban drift, constitutional reform, job creation, the creation of free economic zones, rural health clinics, the construction of a new National Referral Hospital, climate change, the future of education and the pursuit of corruption, to cite just a few.

Dr Moore ended his Conclusions piece by quoting a statement made by Solomon Jude Devesi (in 2012 elected to the TSI board.)

“For the last 10 years our leaders have been relying on our friends at RAMSI for guidance and assistance as they try to steer our country forward.

“It is true we have made progress in this partnership.  RAMSI has provided us with the environment to search for solutions to rectify our past mistakes and to produce better leaders, always with the ultimate aim of advancing our country.

“Whether RAMSI departs sooner or later, this occasion (speech in 2010) reminds us that help may not always be around and that our issues of leadership cannot be solved by other countries.

“This is our problem and we are the only ones who will suffer from not fixing these issues soon.”

Remarks by Mr Devesi in 2010, are all the more relevant given the issues that are still needing attention at the end of 2016, just six months before RAMSI’s final exit.

Australia was not initially wanting to become involved in the internal ethnic crisis that first evidenced in late 1998 and considerable worsened in mid-1999.

The Australian Federal Police declined to help when I turned to them for help in aiding the security intelligence aspects of policing in the early part of 1999 and similarly the Australian Government seemingly disregarded an intelligence assessment of the then prevailing and worsening security threat that I gave to the Australian High Commission, with the permission of the Solomon Islands Prime Minister, prior to my leaving the Solomons in July 1999.

If one reads the explicit and fully documented account of Australia’s unwillingness to become involved in was perceived to be a purely SI domestic security situation in a report entitled ‘Responding to state failure—the case of Australia and Solomon Islands’ byElsina Wainwright.

Not only was my request for Australian intervention declined but so was a request made by Prime Minister Ulufa’alu and, much later on, another request from Prime Minister Sogavare was also rejected.

In Ms Wainwright’ report I have mentioned, she wrote:

“As a major regional power with significant economic and security interests in Solomon Islands, Australia’s participation would always be key to regional peace-building efforts.

“However, for most of the conflict Australia proved reluctant to consider more radical forms of intervention.

“For example, in 1999 it rejected a request from Prime Minister Ulufa’alu for Australia to provide a small police contingent.”

“Despite its successful participation in the UN-led mission to East Timor, it took a long time before Australia seriously considered the option of intervening directly to end the conflict.”

Ms. Wainwright went on to write:

“Australia’s reluctance to countenance a state building response to the Solomon Islands conflict was conditioned in part by regional sensitivities.

“Australia’s colonial history in the SouthPacific (Thompson 1980 Thompson, R.C. 1980.Australian imperialism in the Pacific: the expansionistera 1820–1920, Melbourne University Press.) complicated the prospect for more robust forms of engagement, limiting its interventionary options.

“But it also reflected a deeper malaise in its regional approach in the decades preceding the conflict.

“Australia had for some time found it difficult to reconcile what it considered to be its largely thankless obligations as a regional power with the minimal returns it could expect to gain from the region. Australia’s ‘disinterest’ in the South Pacific prior to the conflict had already seen it criticized for its regional aloofness—for being ‘in but not of’ the region” (Shibuya 2006 Shibuya, E.Y. 2006. Pacific engaged, or washed away?Implications of Australia’s new activism in Oceania.Global change.peace and security, 18(2): 71–81. [Taylor & Francis Online], p. 71). “Calls for greater Australian involvement in the conflict before 2003 therefore went against the grain of Australia’s regional disposition.”

“Up until mid-2003 the Australian Government steadfastly resisted demands for a more robust form of intervention in Solomon Islands, preferring instead to redouble its existing bilateral and regional approach.

“It increased bilateral assistance to Solomon Islands with a view to fortifying domestic peace building initiatives and ameliorating the developmental consequences of the conflict (by contrast, the EU reduced its assistance).

“It hosted peace talks in October 2000 leading to the TPA. Australia also worked through regional fora to pressurize Solomon Islands’ leaders to reach a sustainable peace (Dinnen2004Dinnen , S., 2004. Lending a fist? Australia’s new interventionism in the Southwest Pacific [online]. State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Project Discussion Paper, 2004/5, Canberra:Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. Available from: [Accessed 4 February 2008].).

“For example, it successfully encouraged Pacific Island Forum leaders to adopt the Biketawa Declaration in 2000, which established a (limited) framework for intervention in the affairs of member states to resolve conflict (Shibuya 2006 Shibuya, E.Y. 2006. Pacific engaged, or washed away?

“Implications of Australia’s new activism in Oceania. Global change.peace and security, 18(2): 71–81. [Taylor & Francis Online], p. 76), providing a limited basis for more direct regional engagement in the Solomon Islands conflict.

“The declaration was promulgated in the context of a perception of growing instability across the South Pacific such as the 2000 Fiji coup, governance challenges in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands conflict itself.

“However, Australia resisted calls for it to intervene directly even as regional pressure mounted.

“This reflected its concerns over the enormous challenge that such an intervention would entail, but also the absence of a discernable ‘exit strategy’ and the associated view that if Australian troops ‘went in’ they would be ‘running the place for the next 50 to 100 years” (Shibuya 2006 Shibuya, E.Y. 2006. Pacific engaged, or washed away? Implications of Australia’s new activism in Oceania.Global change.peace and security, 18(2): 71–81. [Taylor & Francis Online], p. 73). As Eric Y. Shibuya has pithily observed, [c]aught in a no-win situation, Canberra then erred on the side of inaction’ (2006, p. 73).

“The Australian Government refused again a Solomon Islands’ request—this time by Prime Minister Sogavare—for the provision of a police contingent to support law and order in the lead up to the December 2001 elections.

“As late as January 2003, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer dismissed the idea of Australian intervention in Solomon Islands arguing.

“Australia is not about to recolonise the South Pacific, nor should it. These are independent sovereign countries … Sending in Australian troops to occupy Solomon Islands would be folly in the extreme.

“It would be widely resented in the Pacific region. It would be very difficult to justify to Australian taxpayers. And for how many years would such an occupation have to continue?

“And what would be the exit strategy? The real show-stopper, however, is that it would not work—no matter how it was dressed up, whether as an Australian or a Commonwealth or a Pacific Islands Forum initiative.

“The fundamental problem is that foreigners do not have answers for the deep-seated problems afflicting Solomon Islands.” (Downer 2003a Downer, A. 2003a. Neighbours cannot be recolonised. The Australian, 8 January. p.11)

“Therefore, the Australian Government’s announcement, in May 2003, that it had decided to lead a regional intervention mission to Solomon Islands, was greeted with some surprise.”

“Within Australia, the decision was justified explicitly through the related discourses of state failure and state building.”

“Australian Prime Minister Howard argued that RAMSI’s deployment would send the very important signal to ‘other countries in the region that help is available if it is sought’ and also demonstrate Australia’s ‘desire to help all the peoples of the Pacific to have conditions of law and order and hope and peace and stability for their future generations” (Howard 2003 Howard, J., 2003)

“If ever a compelling case for external intervention existed it was in Solomon Islands. The six-year conflict had brought the resource-rich state to the brink of collapse.

“The need for external intervention was expressed widely by many within Solomon Islands itself. Nevertheless, Australia’s decision to lead RAMSI constituted a significant shift in policy and a challenge to the regional status quo.”

While acknowledging, thankfully, all that RAMSI has done in the Solomon Islands I have long held the view that early intervention on a much smaller scale in 1999 in terms of a right to protect would have saved lives, prevented the collapse of the then SIAC Government, prevented the involvement of the Malaitan Eagle Force and the legitimate Prime Minister captured and held at gun point.

Why do I still hold this view?

I do so because what was occurring in the Solomon Islands at the time I was departing at the end of my contract in July 1999 was leading up to gross and systematic violations of human rights that would offend every precept of common humanity.

Sadly, nobody listened to me and the security situation I had accurately assessed and reported got progressively worse from that time on.

Clearly, in my view, the 9/11 World Trade attack in the United States and followed by the two Bali bombing attacks which saw 88 Australian tourists to Bali killed in terrorist attacks changed Australia’s thinking on its own regional security and prompted RAMSI’s intervention in the Solomon Islands as late as 2003.

It was not until 2005 that the UN unanimously adopted a Responsibility to Protect a political commitment, articulated in paragraphs 138-139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document.


Frank Short

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