AUSTRALIA and Solomon Islands have signed a new security treaty – one the Solomons’ prime minister hopes will “collect dust” and never be used.
In Australia for a week-long visit, the Solomon Islands prime minister, Manasseh Sogavare, said the bilateral security agreement he signed on Monday with the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, would provide for the rapid deployment of Australian security forces in the case of civil and ethnic unrest of the kind witnessed in the Solomons in the early 2000s.
“The security treaty is ‘just in case’,” Sogavare said Monday, “if the Solomon Islands goes back to what it was in the 2000s.
“But we’re determined to ensure that the treaty will collect dust. We will not allow the country to go down that way. The treaty is about if we fall back into a situation where we were in the 2000s, Australia would come back and assist us.”
Turnbull told parliament the treaty “will enable defence, civilian and civilian personnel to deploy operationally in emergency situations to provide security or humanitarian assistance at the Solomon Islands government’s request”.
Sogavare said he was in Australia to thank the country for its unswerving support over 14 years of RAMSI, the $3bn Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands, which pulled the country back from the brink of civil war from 2003.
“The Tensions”, as they are known in the Solomons, saw increasing ethnic violence between 1998 and 2003, in which militants from Guadalcanal Island and nearby Malaita fought over land, jobs and economic development. Two hundred people were killed, hundreds more were beaten and tortured, sexual violence was widespread and several thousand people were displaced from their homes.
In 2003, with the Solomons on the verge of collapse, the government formally requested assistance from its regional neighbours.
Over 14 years until June this year, when RAMSI formally concluded, more than 7,200 Australian soldiers and 1,700 police served in the Solomons. Two Australians died and more than 30 police were injured during election protests in 2006.
Forty-four unarmed Australian federal police remain stationed in the country.
Turnbull said RAMSI had been a success. “In 2017 we see a very different Solomon Islands,” he said. “It enjoys what is by global standards a very low crime rate, it has a high-quality police force, Solomon Islands markets are bustling, children are back at school, medicines are available.”
Sogavare agreed RAMSI had restored law and order to the Solomons but said the underlying issues faced by the archipelago nation – in particular ethnic tensions and the Honiara-centric development of the country – remained. – Source: The Guardian
“RAMSI came to the country with specific mandate and … has accomplished what it came to do. Law and order was restored,” he said. “The responsibility now lies with the government and the people of the Solomon Islands to take it from there. The environment is there for the Solomon Islands government and private sector to take the country forward.”
Sogavare’s relationship with Australia has not always been so cordial. He was a staunch critic of RAMSI initially, arguing it undermined Solomon Islands sovereignty. In 2006, during his second term as prime minister, Sogavare expelled Australia’s high commissioner and defended his attorney general, Julian Moti, whom Australia wanted to extradite on child sex charges.
Sogavare threatened to expel Australian peacekeepers from RAMSI and, a week later, RAMSI peacekeepers raided his office, kicking in a door and seizing a fax machine, in a search for evidence on Moti.
In a speech at the Lowy Institute on Monday evening, Sogavare said his government’s primary challenge was simply “to hold the country together” while it pursues constitutional change to create a decentralised, federalist system of government that has widespread support across the archipelago.
“It’s only when we go out to play soccer outside that we see ourselves as Solomon Islanders … that’s a very big challenge for us. If you’re not united, addressing development will be very challenging.”
He said the Solomons Islands was “very worried” about a proposed independence referendum in the neighbouring Papua New Guinean province of Bougainville, because the result would likely not be respected by the Port Moresby government, and it could spark reanimated unrest and violence in the province, spilling over into the Solomons.