Pacific leaders gathered in Palau for the Pacific Islands Forum will be presented with a new report that assesses one of the region’s key initiatives – the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI).
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Darcy Gordon Lilo will present the report to Forum leaders at Thursday’s retreat on Peleliu Island.
While detailing the achievements of the decade-long regional mission, the report assesses a range of tensions and weaknesses in the intervention. It concludes: “With the benefit of hindsight, RAMSI might have been better constituted as a narrower regionally-controlled peacekeeping and peace-building operation, including the legal and judicial assistance, but with the governance and economic elements handled separately through bilateral or multilateral agencies.”
‘The RAMSI Decade: A Review of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, 2003 – 2013’ is co-authored by Papua New Guinea researcher Henry Okole, Victoria University Professor Jon Fraenkel and jurist Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi (a former High Court Judge who has served as Vice President of Fiji). It was commissioned last year by the Forum and the Solomon Islands Government.
The report provides detailed analysis of the achievements and challenges of rebuilding state institutions during the intervention. It raises concerns over the sustainability of such multi-billion dollar efforts, capturing the tension between support and dependency with the Pijin phrase ‘Weitim olketa RAMSI bae kam stretem’ (‘Wait for RAMSI to come and fix it’).
The report underlines the influence that Canberra maintained over the decade-long regional mission. It stresses the way successive Australian governments used the intervention to reshape public policy in Honiara: “Australian-favoured methods of public sector management, governance reform, liberalisation and de-regulation were offered as the price to be paid by Solomon Islanders if they wanted the policing and justice ministry assistance to restore the rule of law.”
Report co-author Professor Jon Fraenkel notes: “We hope that the report is well-received by Forum governments, and that one of its core messages – about the poor design of RAMSI accountability mechanisms to give expression to the Pacific regional framing – will inform thinking about any future regional missions.”
In July 2013, RAMSI’s military component was discontinued and most civilian programmes were transferred to Australian and New Zealand aid agencies (now merged into the two countries’ foreign affairs ministries). RAMSI itself continues, with a small police component to be maintained until 2017.
The 2013 handover provided an opportunity for an assessment of the intervention’s achievements and an independent report was commissioned by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo.
The authors were encouraged to document and assess RAMSI’s progress and implications for other interventions or assistance missions in the region. But they also had the independence to critique the initiative – as a result, they note in the introduction: “We have been free to identify and raise issues that other reviews may have felt unable to address.”
After five years of conflict and violence led by competing militias, RAMSI was launched in 2003 as the first mission under the auspices of the Forum’s 2000 Biketawa Declaration.
The report highlights RAMSI’s unique elements, but also compares the intervention with other actions across the globe. Unlike interventions in Kosovo or Timor-Leste, RAMSI was not a UN-led initiative and didn’t establish a transitional government in the aftermath of the breakdown of state power. As a police-led initiative, it included an initial military component but soon morphed into a substantial programme of institutional and economic reform.
The researchers interviewed people around the country – from politicians, government and RAMSI officials, to community leaders and former militants. The report provides a key compilation of the many achievements of the regional mission – not just the initial demilitarisation and stabilisation of a country wracked by militia violence, but initiatives to strengthen key government institutions.
But in spite of praise for RAMSI, the authors note that interviewees also highlighted the other side of the coin: “Almost all respondents commence any assessment of RAMSI by saluting achievements, but equally nearly all of those who are able or willing to express a broader judgment will qualify that enthusiasm, and criticise some aspects of the mission. In most cases, those criticisms reflect some hope that RAMSI might do more for a country where basic needs poverty remains widespread, or express dissatisfaction about the meagre results of the A$2.8 billion expenditure.”
First amongst equals
The Pacific Islands Forum and RAMSI officials have regularly noted that all 16 Forum member countries were active participants in the intervention. Every Forum country assigned police officers to the Participating Police Force (PPF) that is a central component of the mission (and the one element that continues today, with some police deployed until 2017).
But the report pulls few punches in critiquing the role played by Australia, as the dominant force in the regional initiative. The presence of officials from all countries over the decade masks the imbalance in different sectors. The vast majority of RAMSI’s civilian advisors came from Australia — by mid-2006, of 173 civilian advisors, 152 were Australian, 10 were New Zealanders and only five were Pacific Islanders.
Under the initial agreement, the first RAMSI Special Co-ordinator in 2003 was Australian official Nick Warner, and the post remained in Australian hands over the decade.
The report praises the generous funding from Canberra but also critiques the influential role played by the Forum’s largest member: “The unusual preponderance of a single leading country may have enhanced the coherence of the command structure, but it also reduced the weight of critical voices, able and/or willing to consider shifts in direction.”
The researchers argue: “The Howard Government wanted to radically ‘re-engineer’ Solomon Islands to conform to fashionable ideas of ‘good governance’ and economic liberalism, but this project lacked any groundswell of support from amongst the country’s elected politicians. Those ambitious objectives faded in prominence during the decade, particularly after the crisis years of 2006-7.”
The post-election crisis in 2006, with extensive rioting and arson in Honiara, led to rapidly declining relations between Australian officials and the government led by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (whose cabinet included politicians alleged to have played a role in fomenting the riots). Throughout 2007, relations between the Solomon’s government and RAMSI deteriorated, including the expulsion of an Australian Chief of Police and an Australian High Commissioner, and a series of crises around Sogavare’s Attorney General Julian Moti.
The report pulls no punches on the Moti affair: “RAMSI’s pursuit of Attorney General Julian Moti on behalf of the Australian Federal Police was as egregious as it was harmful to the rule of law. It portrayed in stark relief the contradiction between RAMSI’s declared emphasis on creating a new legal and moral order and what it was prepared to resort to in the face of a government perceived as hostile to the mission…While we carry no brief for Mr Moti, the events surrounding his entry into the Solomon Islands and the manner of his subsequent removal from the Solomon Islands reflected poorly on RAMSI, and left a tarnished legacy.”
The report doesn’t spare successive Solomon Island governments, however, noting that development has “been hampered by a variety of issues, including local skill shortages, leadership turnover, internal demoralisation, or lack of sufficiently strong political commitment.” Many challenges facing the country could never be solved by outside forces, and “were likely to entail generational change or a dramatic reconfiguration of the political order.”
Professor Fraenkel notes: “The handling of the local political context was critical to the success or failure of RAMSI. Other reports (mostly those commissioned by RAMSI itself) have generally ignored the politics, and approached the assessment of the mission merely by measuring whether or not a set of technical tasks have been carried out successfully.”
The bulk of the report includes detailed analysis of RAMSI’s work in “state building” rather than peacekeeping. After the initial intervention, a key component involved strengthening a range of government departments and reforming or rebuilding the police force and prison service. The report documents extensive reforms at the Ministry of Finance, including Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, which salvaged Solomon Islands’ battered economy and debt loading.
A central theme, however, is the weakness of “capacity building” in many areas, especially to rebuild the police which had collapsed as an effective force in 2000-03. The report notes that: “The RAMSI years have been a period of recovery, but they have also fostered a sense of dependency and demoralisation, particularly evident in the police force. Watching better-paid, better-equipped, Australian Federal Police officers re-establish the rule of law is not an obvious path to self-reliance.”
In government departments, “RAMSI significantly improved the performance of the key ministries where it deployed, but mostly as a result of the activities of inward-placement of in-line personnel and advisors…. However, achievements were often either dissipated with the departure of those expatriates or did not long survive their tenure.”
Where too next? RAMSI officials have long argued that their task was not time bound, but based on a set of achievements – the report suggests otherwise: “Ultimately, the timing of RAMSI’s exit has not been calibrated to the completion of tasks, but has been determined by political decisions on the part of Australia and New Zealand.”
A crucial lesson is the need for local ownership of any future regional interventions: “Although the Solomon Islands parliament endorsed RAMSI, many politicians and civil servants remained ambivalent about the mission throughout the decade. RAMSI was pursuing a radical reform strategy which – however well-intentioned – lacked any groundswell of support amongst the country’s elected politicians or senior civil servants.”
The RAMSI People’s Surveys have shown that most Solomon Islanders consistently welcomed the intervention, especially for its success in rapidly demilitarising a complex and costly conflict. Polls continue to indicate fear of a return to the violence that marked the years between 1998 and 2003 if RAMSI were to depart. RAMSI still has many champions in the general community, though the authors argue that this “largely reflects support for the restoration of peace and the ending of the ascendancy of the militant factions.”
As leaders gathered in Palau reflect on a key regional intervention, there are plenty of lessons for all Forum member countries to share..
By Nic Maclellan
KOROR, (ISLANDS BUSINESS)