I am a great believer in free speech and a free press but there are limitations imposed by the law of defamation as to what can be written and said.
The law has generally been codified as ‘Defamation’ but some common law jurisdictions also distinguish between spoken defamation, called slander, and defamation in other media such as printed words or images, called libel.
In most western countries laws have also been introduced to protect a person from age discrimination and in Australia, in particular, there is an Age Discrimination Act in force, as indeed, there is in the United Kingdom.
Both sets of legislation aims to ensure that all job applicants – young and old – and everyone in between are treated equally and have the same rights and opportunities as others.
If a person is discriminated against in terms of age a complaint can be lodged, investigated and, if unresolved, can even be referred to the Federal Court of Australia or to the Federal Magistrates Court.
While in the Solomon Islands, I am not aware of legislation that has been enacted to prevent and adjudicate on age discrimination, the fact that an applicant can be discriminated against in view of age, doesn’t make it any less unfair.
What I have written so far, brings me to the point of my complaint about the statements made in your newspaper yesterday by a top government official, who chose to remain anonymous, when responding to an article that had been written by the veteran journalist and former government minister, Alfred Sasako, claiming there had been a split in the Cabinet over the choice of the new police commissioner, Peter Aoraunisaka.
This unnamed government official went on to add both discriminatory and defamatory statements against me when he said, “However, Cabinet has decided to eliminate the top two choices because of these reasons:
“Firstly, Frank Short has an age issue which does not see him fit to get the job.
“To add on, Short at one stage when Solomon Islands was faced with the ethnic crisis took off which indicated he was incapable of handling such situations.”
Also in your newspaper yesterday, under the title, ‘Police chief’s job’ I gave a full account as to how I had written to the Secretary of the Police and Correctional Services Commissioner (PCSC), when the Commissioner’s post was first advertised, merely to say I would be willing to offer my services to the Solomon Islands Government if a suitable local or expatriate applicant wasn’t available, nothing more than that.
I pointed out I was over the prescribed age limit prescribed but had read that, in exceptional circumstances, applicants over the age limit of 55 years could be considered.
I might add I never really expected a reply and actually ended my letter wishing the successful candidate the best of luck in managing the Force.
It came as a complete surprise to be told I had been shortlisted and then there followed an interview by the members of the Selection Panel on 6 August.
During that interview, I can now disclose that one of the panel members posed the question of me as to why I would want to return to the Solomons and surrender my retirement in Thailand to again take on the challenge that the Commissioner’s post would impose.
My answer was honest. I said I felt I had never left the Solomon Islands and believed I had unfinished work to do.
I might now also disclose that I told the PCSC that in the unlikely event was selected to become Commissioner again I would need to ask the government to negotiate a salary for me most probably less than paid to previous expatriate Commissioners because too high a payment would impact negatively on the retirement pension I already receive.
If one has followed the many articles that I have contributed to the media in the Solomons in the years that I have been away it will be clear that I have much wider concerns for the people than merely for the police service.
I have regularly supported the need for reconciliation, land settlement, women’s issues, youth employment and welfare, poverty alleviation, the disabled, the Tony Cross Disability Centre and also suggested ways in which the rural poor might be helped to create income copying an idea that has had great success here in Thailand.
In addition, I praised the efforts of those inducing nation building and restoring civic pride, as I put it, to restore Honiara to the clean and orderly national capital it once was.
Could it really be said I truly covet the Police Commissioner’s job for any influence the position carries or the salary that might be offered, especially as I have just mentioned about my bigger desires to help the nation.
Emphatically no, because just by equating the salary of a recruit police constable in the New South Wales Police the starting pay is currently A$42,000 per annum, with an average salary, presumably with allowances, of A$56,000 per annum.
The higher figure equates to 372,960 per annum expressed in Solomon Islands dollar terms.
In any case when previously Commissioner I used my personal savings and much of my salary to help alleviate the working conditions and aid the resource needs of the policemen and women because the government was constantly without money.
The defamatory statements alleging that, “Short at one stage when Solomon Islands was faced with the ethnic crisis took off which indicated he was incapable of handling such situations,” is wholly false, has caused me harm and the statements made without adequate research into the truthfulness of the written statement.
Is it any wonder why this so-called top-government official chose to hide behind the cloak of secrecy?
I left when I did at the end of my two year contract to give the Solomons the best chance, as I saw it, of a lasting end to the ethnic conflict and to bring peace to the nation.
The militants refused to accept the Panatina Accord and said they would only lay down their arms if I left.
At the same time others were saying much the same and demanded I left before considering an end to the internal conflict.
I am on record as setting out the reasons for my resignation and my sound opinions why I refused to have the NRSF use the their heavy weaponry in provoking a civil war, brothers pitted against one another and why my decision, although painful to have had to make, saved the country from lasting ethnic division and much loss of life and bloodshed.
To end, I will quote the material that I have recently compiled in my memoirs and some mention of a statement I made to challenge a finding in the TRC’s final report.
GIVING PEACE A CHANCE – MY DECISION ALONE
Since early 1999 successive attempts were made by the SIAC government to bring to an end the crisis on Guadalcanal by looking into the underlying issues and to deal with the demands of the various parties, included, as previously mentioned, a S$2.5 million payment to the self-styled leaders of the GRA in return for ending the conflict.
What name could be used to explain this final offer as it stood?
And where was this payment surfacing from? Admittedly, after the arms shipment funds, totaling US$4 million, nothing was a surprise anymore.
In May 1999, before the introduction of the state of emergency declaration, a kastom feast took place in Honiara, which I attended, bringing together the ‘Big Men’ from Guadalcanal and Malaita to reconcile their differences; it failed to halt the troubles because the perpetrators of the violence claimed it had not addressed the underlying causes of the tensions.
Eventually, peace meetings convened by the Commonwealth Envoy, Sitiveni Rabuka, did result in what was termed the Honiara Peace Accord being signed on 28 June 1999.
In signing that accord the parties acknowledged that successive governments since independence had ignored many of the issues raised as demands of the Guadalcanal people.
The government made a commitment to address the issues, especially those complaints relating to land.
Yes, one did have some personal satisfaction when the blanket accord was signed since I had recommended the government obtain assistance from the Commonwealth.
However, the Guadalcanal militants had carefully excluded themselves from being signatories to the accord: worse still the Island politicians had allowed them to get away with that open ended approach.
Their hostilities continued after what could be called a brief respite; allowed to re-arm and re-organize, with renewed anticipation of the fact that at worst they had a political draw: best scenario a political win.
By now with my contract ending the militants saw their chance and seized the opportunity.
First, they claimed they would only lay down their arms if I left; a situation vastly helped by a spreading of deliberate false information and downright lies about me personally.
However, about the same time other leading militants also declared they would not stop their campaign until all the people of Malaita had been forced out of Guadalcanal.
My public appeals to Keke and Sangu to lay down their arms and to allow the government to fully consider the ‘Bona Fide’ demands being pressed by Alebua were ignored, as I explained earlier.
The showpiece Honiara Peace Accord had been signed; my two year contract was almost up.
Now it was decision time, although the Prime Minister had announced, publically, on 1st June 1999 that the government had extended my contract for another two years. He also stated that he was pleased with the way I had carried out my work as Commissioner.
I was grateful to the Prime Minister and appreciated his confidence in my efforts.
As I contemplated a second contract, my belief was that the Solomon Islands was on the verge of a bloody civil war with no external help forthcoming, despite my early warnings and the submission of Monarch's intelligence assessment of increased militancy.
The government’s call for assistance from our regional neighbours and the United Nations had also been ignored.
I concluded we were alone, unheard, vulnerable, unaided and my reaction - Shame!
By remaining as Commissioner, I knew that I would have no option but to resorting to much stronger police enforcement, involving para military action and this would of necessity require ordering the use of force and using weaponry against militants who were, clearly, being manipulated by selfish politicians pushing old grievances as convenient new tactics in challenging the government of the day.
In such circumstances, the police would most likely be involved in firing on their own Melanesian brothers, kith and kin, and this would undoubtedly exacerbate the ethnic divisions already evident in the Force, but also, in my view, destroy the very nature of the fragile nation, to say nothing of the casualties and likely loss of life on both sides of the conflict.
The militants were capable of hit and run tactics and could easily out maneuver the police.
They were also in possession of firearms, some stolen, some converted from old wartime stocks and some homemade; all capable of inflicting injury or death.
The police had no protective clothing equipment or protected vehicles and would be vulnerable during operations, as had already been proven.
A guerrilla warfare campaign was unsustainable and the only really sensible, lasting solution was a political one.
I wasn't prepared to be party to bringing down universal human rights condemnation on a nation and people that I had sworn to protect and serve and it was my reasoning that, if by leaving, there was the possibility that the militants would end their actions and negotiate a peace, then I could not allow such a peace, however allusive it then seemed, to be missed - hence my resignation.
Regrettably, that peace did not come about; fighting and bloodshed intensified for many more years and any hopes I once had for reforming and re-shaping the police service ended.
In 2000 just over a year after leaving the Solomons, I was very sad when some members of the RSIPF abandoned their pledge of impartiality and took up arms in the civil conflict, subordinated to political and personal pressures.
As much as I had warned the government of the likelihood of pay back by certain elements in the police, as you will read later on, the degree and extent of their unlawful actions cause me now to wonder how long it will be before the RSIPF is fully trusted again by a society known to have long memories.
In my letter of resignation, I wrote:
“I confirm my intention to leave the Solomon Islands on the completion of my current contract on 23 July 1999.
“The decision to decline a further contract has not been taken lightly for I came to this country with a determination to reform the entire police service and to win respect for an organization that had been devoid of leadership, resources and facilities for many years.
“I can honestly say that I have devoted my whole time in trying to achieve my aims, including outlaying large sums of money of my personal funds to acquire essentials when funds were not provided.
“The cosmetic changes that have been made and the service delivery that has been enhanced cannot be sustained without effective, committed and loyal officers and money to acquire logistical equipment, improve and build police facilities, recruit personnel and re-train the whole organization.
“The inherited debt burden faced by the government on assuming office worked to prevent these reforms. No amount of personal initiative or encouragement can succeed, in the long term, without the realization that an effective police service, of adequate strength and capability, is necessary at all times to provide security and aid the development of the country.
“I have had to appeal for funds and equipment from many sources, including our development partners. I have also taken the initiative to have a security review undertaken of the nation’s security needs, but a Police Commissioner should not be expected to continually beg for money to maintain essential services.
“My calls for the early retirement of senior officers (at their own request) and to have them replaced has not been finalized after 2 years and there is still no funding available to provide fuel, buildings, maintenance, uniforms, transport, communications, recruitment, training, operations…The list is endless.
“The press criticism is but a small part of the major picture and I have warned, repeatedly, of the adverse affect it is having on morale. Despite this, and until yesterday, there was little time, if any, to curb the critical attacks on myself and the police as a whole. The police are now accused of brutality without any evidence or proof and the Royal Commission, which I requested and which could have discounted the allegations, if evidence had been presented, has still not be formed.
“I am now subjected to calls for my resignation and removal from office. I have even been told by the Deputy Speaker of the National Parliament to ‘pack my bags’ and calls are being made for police officers’ to improve their image on Guadalcanal.
“I have taken independent advice about my decision to leave and advised that my staying will not help in promoting community policing on Guadalcanal for some years. The hatred caused by the divide that has developed between the people of Guadalcanal and Malaita will work against community policing. Given that this is true, and I believe it is, I would not wish to oversee an armed constabulary forever standing between two aggressive tribes.
“It was initiative, largely, that saw the Commonwealth Mission arrive and begin peace talks and one which one would hope will lead to a settlement and a return to normality. Normality will be fragile, however, based on the massive disruption that has been caused and ‘pay back’ is at the core of the custom of the people.
“It is true that the expatriate advisers that I had earmarked to come from the United Kingdom will not come when I leave and the European Union assistance programme that I had engineered will also be shelved, perhaps cancelled if the security situation does not improve.
“It leaves me saddened to have to leave the Solomon Islands when there is so much to be done in re-building the police service and, indeed the country, but there is only so much that one individual can do without the tools to do the job and the realization that no one is indispensable.”
I should add:
I was touched by the overwhelming support from the members of the force and the public to reconsider my decision to leave and I did have serious doubts that what I was doing was best for the country, especially as the Prime Minister said to me privately,
“You know, Frank, if you do leave my government will fall.” How prophetic those words would soon become.
Not only did I get messages of support and encouragement to change my mind from the general public and the police in the Solomons, but I also got a letter from the US Ambassador based in Port Moresby and the US Director of the FBI in Washington, Judge Lois J. Freeh, who commented on the mutually beneficial relationship we had achieved during my time as Commissioner.
I assured the Prime Minister, some days before leaving, that I really did not want to go but I could not envisage being able to contain the low scale civil war that it had become without external intervention in support of the ill-equipped, under-resourced police service, and I repeated it was not my desire to use high powered automatic weapons in trying to bring an end to the national ordeal, risking the lives of my police officers and civilians alike.
I emphasized to the Prime Minister there had to be an early political solution to the crisis and not a military one by the deployment of the RSIPF and I urged him to renew his calls for outside intervention to broker a fresh peace agreement and end hostilities.
I also warned the Prime Minister of secret information that I had about the intention of some members of the police taking retaliation for having been constantly abused and labelled as ‘Dog’s sperm.’
I added that out of loyalty to me, it had been said, those members would not act if I stayed as Commissioner, but would enact, what they claimed as ‘justice,’ should I leave.
Their threat of retaliation would persist, it was also claimed, even if I were to be replaced by a retired New Zealand police officer, as was then being mooted.
I repeated this same, vital, information to the members of the Cabinet, presided over by Sir Baddeley Devasi, on the eve of my departure but was angrily rebuffed by Paterson Oti who retorted across the table;
“You don’t tell us what to do, we tell you, as we are the elected representatives of the people.”
I calmly replied that I wasn’t telling the assembled Ministers' what to do but merely giving them information I thought important they should have. Other Ministers shook their heads in apparent disbelief at Oti's outburst.
Here, readers might well pause and reflect on what regrettably occurred less than a year later when the Rove police armoury was raided, weapons stolen, and the Prime Minister held captive and forced into a humiliating resignation.
On my return to Australia in late July 1999, I met with an intelligence officer at the headquarters of the Defence Intelligence Organization (DIO) in Canberra where I again stressed the likelihood of ‘pay back’ by elements of the police, but from all accounts of subsequent reports relating to Australia’s intelligence assessments of the situation, my advice was either not taken seriously or discounted.
A grave error, and when the so-called ‘coup’ did occur in 2000, Australian intelligence had failed to see it coming.
Challenging the TRC’s Findings
If your readers will refer, particularly, to the article I wrote in which I challenged the report of the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had been released unofficially by the editor of the report, The Rt. Rev.Dr. Terry Brown and uploaded to the internet for all to see and published in full in the Solomon Times on 24 June 2013 it will give further insight into the reasons why I resigned.
I will quote just one or two aspects of that article to further illustrate my side of the story and to dispel entirely the defamatory statement that I “took off” indicating I was incapable of handling the ethnic crisis.
This is what I had to say to the Chairman of the TRC in a letter that I gave him on the day of my appearance before the Commission:
“Dear Father Ata,
“One of your Commissioners’ put the question to me today at our meeting that I should have used the armed NRSF to put down the militancy.
“The question was fair and needed to be raised, but I would like to, once again, say why it was not a realistic or feasible option.
“The police were used to respond to militant attacks and given arms for self-protection but it became highly risky and dangerous since their vehicles often came under fire from a “faceless” enemy concealed in the thick bush alongside the roads in the higher terrain.
“Policemen deployed on such missions had no protective clothing and their vehicles were also open and limited to carrying just a handful of personnel. Logistically, the RSIPF was devoid of sufficient and adequate transport, as well as personnel.
“The sea going maritime craft supplied and maintained by the Australians could not be used for operational duties demanded by the nature and scope of the militancy
“The government realized, albeit too late, the need for a political solution to the unfolding crisis and sought the intervention of the Commonwealth.
“The Australians despite their non-intervention had judged correctly that the RSIPF was not equipped, logistically, numerically and provisioned to take on the faceless militants who were capable of hit and run tactics avoiding the police easily.
“There was substantial evidence that the core militants were being manipulated and encouraged by power hungry politicians and by their fellow travellers amongst the ranks of the failed politicians.
“The reasoning was to have used the NRSF the chances were that one element of their ranks would have turned on the other and this could have provoked an all out civil war.
“There was highly reliable intelligence given to our close development partners well in advance of the scale of militancy that it became and they failed to help or render practical aid.
“In the absence of external aid the RSIPF was not able, for the reasons I have explained at length, to take on the militants without incurring great loss of life, including police, provoking a civil war and forever destroying the possibility of future co-existence between the population groups,
“External intervention when it came relatively quickly put down the insurgency but one had to witness the arrival of huge quantities of logistical supplies, boats, vehicles, aircraft, soldiers, communications etc., to understand what the RSIPF lacked to even risk using the NRSF.
“I hope that I have made the position clear by highlighting these points and I stand by my decision not to have deployed the NRSF.”
Before submitting that letter, in giving oral testimony and recorded in the TRC’s report, I said:
“At a time when the Commonwealth Envoy was attempting to broker a peace settlement and the government had offered to make S$2.5 million payment to the self-styled GRA in return to end the conflict and was awaiting Guadalcanal province’s next move, it seemed expedient to me not provoke the situation by ordering all out assaults on the road blocks, but to try and await a peaceful outcome.”
This statement and my letter to Father Ata appears to have prompted the TRC to conclude : “underestimating the underlying issues of the unrest in rural Guadalcanal impeded a vigorous reaction of the police to end ethnic disputes and confront the rise in militant activity from the outset” A totally unfounded finding not based on the evidence or fact.
“My long experience had taught me in similar security situations overseas that an over-reaction would have had far-reaching and hugely negative results as proved to be the case after I left and new police management adopted a combatant ill-informed direction when dealing with the insurgency.
I will illustrate my point with just one quote, but there are many other examples that were witnessed and can be quoted.
“Extract from the testimony of Mr. Alick Saeni, Public Hearing, Buma, 3 May 2011.
“Once the RSIPF began aggressive actions, they often over-reacted and used heavy handed tactics that inflamed the situation and reinforced community concerns that officers’ were biased and ineffective.
“The police deployed its RRU to selected positions in north and northeast Guadalcanal in search of militant strongholds and to protect economic key areas like the Gold Ridge Mine, where the TRC received statements denouncing abusive behavior of police officers against workers of the company and villagers from surrounding communities.
“During the tension I was employed at the Gold Ridge Mine. I worked as a barman in the company’s pub. Not long after the militant activities started the Police Field Force (the NRSF?” (my words) were deployed to provide security for the company, they had sent over seventy plus officers and they were armed. The police treated us badly. They accused us of being members of the GRA. I told them that we were not members of the GRA, we were employed here and have no part in the militancy.”
Let that brief illustration from just one person who gave evidence to the TRC underscore my initial concerns in deploying the NRSF (Field Force), made up of mainly Malaitan police officers.
I find it unconvincing; too, that the TRC failed to connect the initial uprising to the reported involvement of politicians who had tried to oust the SIAC government after successive attempts had failed by way of Motions of No Confidence.
The TRC report merely concludes that Ulufa’alu had put forward this theory.
If indeed there was an under-estimation of the unfolding situation, as claimed, then it was by the politicians who first ignited the fuse that set off the “ethnic unrest” by their politicking and who misjudged the reactions that followed, to the extent they were unable to prevent the wild fire that ensued.
I might add, also, that Prime Minister Ulufa’alu ,while respecting the operational independence of my role as Police Commissioner, was totally opposed to dividing the nation by a heavy handed use of “military” police deployment and I shared his real concerns.
I believe it is pertinent to mention, too, that had the Solomon Islands not abandoned the former British Colonial system of administration that had successfully functioned for many years prior to the nation’s Independence, the ethnic divisions over land rights and settlement that first surfaced in the remoter regions of the Weathercoast might well have been dealt with on the spot and effectively nipped in the bud.
For whatever reason the TRC failed to acknowledge the huge effort I put into the introduction of community policing and why I believed it was important from a national security point of view for the police to have their eyes and ears on the ground.
Even before officially taking up my appointment as the Police Commissioner I took the initiative of visiting the Singapore Police Force where I obtained the backing of the Singapore Police Commissioner, Mr. Koo Boon Hui, to help train selected members of the RSIPF in community policing.
On assuming my appointment in the Solomons, several senior members of the RSIPF, including the Deputy Commissioner, the Commander of the Rapid Response Unit and Superintendent Leslie Mason from the Western Province, attended such training courses in both Singapore and Japan.
My work in achieving my aims of extending community policing across the nation was frustrated in large measure, however, by a lack of money, resources, equipment and personnel.
My conclusion, regrettably, because I have been a great advocate for the TRC, is that if the Commission could get it so wrong in their findings about my leadership role, then how much more will there be disappointment, disagreement and dispute about the TRC’s final report.
Former Police Commissioner