The former Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, told Parliament, during a debate last week, that he kept asking himself whether Solomon Islands could have done things differently prior to inviting the Regional Assistance Mission (RAMSI) in the Solomon Islands.
He was also raising his concerns in relation to the nation’s need for sovereignty over its own affairs.
In his historical questioning Sogavare was correct to raise the matters he did, but the real issue, as I see it, isn’t so much what
Solomon Islands did but what the nation’s regional partners failed to do in 1999 at the onset of the internal crisis which is now commonly referred to as the period of “ethnic tension” or the “tensions.”
I am on record as having previously explained my reasoning for questioning the failure of our closest regional partners when each had an important strategic, security interest unfolding in their back-yards, so to say.
Allow me to explain, once again, in response to some of the points raised by the former Prime Minister last week.
One can only be immensely grateful for RAMSI’s support for the Solomon Islands in the years since 2003 but the cost has recently been described by the Lowly Institute as A$2.4 billion and a massive sum disproportionate to Australia.
The Australia Federal Police (AFP) support is identified in the Lowly Institute’s Report has having cost A$1.5 billion over a decade but when I turned to the AFP for help for the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force at the onset of my appointment as the Commissioner of Police, I was shown the door.
Neither was any money promised to fund the identified reforms that were included in the Strategic Review of the Solomon Islands security, conducted at the request of the SIAC Government in 1998.
The Chairperson of the Malaita MMF also commented on the same issues comparatively recently.
My reading of the full Lowly Institute assessment of the cost and the commentary about there not being a clear exit strategy from the onset, clearly underscores my earlier belief that had Australia heeded the request of Prime Minister Ulufa’alu and earlier taken my advice, based on a sound intelligence assessment in 1999 to help to put an end to the so called “ethnic tension,” then RAMSI’s lengthy and costly involvement would have ended years ago.
Yes, the Solomons was struggling in 1998/1999 but it was not a failed state and the SIAC government’s restructuring and fiscal policies were beginning to turn the situation around.
The government was destabilised by failed politicians thirsting for power and who resurrected the bona fide demands of the Guadalcanal people over land rights and title which ignited a fire and for which those responsible for lighting it quickly lost control and could not end the ensuing fire storm.
A point made by Sogavare is that those responsible for starting the civil unrest have never been brought to justice by RAMSI and one might add the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, all five volumes, is still waiting to be tabled before Parliament.
By Australia and New Zealand remaining as passive witnesses from what started as a low intensity civil conflict fermented by a few insurgents, urged on by the then Opposition, it was allowed to turn into a full blown humanitarian crisis: which included many deaths of innocent civilians and the humiliating overthrow of a democratic, legitimate government at the point of a gun.
What was so different from Prime Minister Ulufa’alu’s early call for regional help to end the conflict on Guadalcanal than that of the
Solomon Islands Government’s reported request in 2003 which led to RAMSI’s intervention?
Prevention is better than a cure, isn’t that the saying?
Well, the facts are that the world had changed after the 9/11 tragedy and Australia’s strategy, belatedly, began to focus on terrorism and the potential for failed states to become targets for terrorists.
The internal security situation in the Solomons became a security concern for Australia only when the Prime Minister, John Howard,
stated “Failed States present a dangerous breeding ground for crime and terrorism.”
He might well have added – ‘In our neighbourhood.’
The 2002 Bali nightclub bombing which killed 88 Australians was a direct wake up call.
It was also the increase in crime, apart from a potential threat of terrorism, which was a highly relevant factor in inducing the decision for Australia to intervene in 2003.
Two words together – ‘crime, terrorism.’ One was a local concern: the other an international concern. The second one involved dollars.
Was it not considered serious enough in the first few months of 1999, to warrant that crime – as such – was destroying a country? Indeed crime was rife, Malaitan settlers had been forcibly evicted and brutally attacked; women raped with their homes burned; twenty thousand refugees evacuated; police firearms stolen; militants armed with stolen weapons and improvised WWII arms roamed freely; major industries, vital to the national economy, raided and were either forced to close, or at the point of closure?
We must assume it was; because Australian civilians were very soon evacuated from the Solomons, but any assistance to help us was ignored.
Prior to 9/11 the traditional view on sovereignty was a sensitive issue and governed by International law embodied in the United
Nation’s Charter and which was clear on the use of force. The relevant provisions calling on all member states from refraining from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.
In instances of recent intervention in Mali and the Ukraine, especially in the Crimea it is clear how radically things have changed.
There are two exceptions to the Charter, however, which did allow for intervention, the right of self defence and…
“To restore International Peace.”
Australia’s intervention and the deployment of RAMSI in 2003 was clearly not an act of self-defence. The rise of militancy on Guadalcanal did not pose a danger for an armed attack on Australia or our other regional partners.
On what grounds did intervention occur? The answer seems to lie in the fact that after the 2000 attempted coup it was then considered the Solomons no longer had the capacity to provide peace and security.
Facts pointed to the Islands opening up to becoming a terrorist base of operations opportunity.
By then the view on national sovereignty had shifted and modification of the law on intervention and State Sovereignty seemed to have been put aside to allow for intervention when states were either unable or unwilling to protect their own people.
I have previously stated that throughout the crisis on Guadalcanal, I had accurately assessed and reported the security threats to regional intelligence sources, but our closest partners failed to come up with rules on how and when to intervene, and under whose authority.
After 9/11 the modifications in the law on intervention, as I’ve said, given the humanitarian and worsening security situation on
Guadalcanal, could have facilitated external help there and then, if not earlier, if only there had been the will and a belief in a ‘right
We were never unwilling to protect our own people but unable to meet the security challenges which I have constantly highlighted with a weakened, ill equipped and under-resourced police service, still suffering from years of neglect by successive governments.
The same view is expressed by a witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and recorded in Volume IV of the TRC Final
Short term Australian military and police assistance with a transfer of the necessary assets and equipment in 1999, with a specific, defined exit strategy, would have swiftly ended the insurgency on Guadalcanal and at far less cost in lives and financial and political terms than what subsequently and tragically was allowed to happen.
The SIAC Government would have survived, the police service remained loyal and democratic governance could have quickly been restored, given some extra help with donor aid.
Even the Strategic Review undertaken by Australia at the request of the Solomon Islands Government and presented to the Prime Minister in April 1999 failed to recognise there was a serious security situation then evident in the country.
We know now, however, that at the time the ongoing security situation in the Solomons was still being considered a domestic concern and merely monitored by our regional off-shore intelligence services.
RAMSI, identified in the Lowly Institute Report and, quoted by the Hon. Sogavare, has become an expensive operation for both Australia and New Zealand, to say nothing of the fact that the domestic tax payers in both countries are still footing the bill.
To add to Sogavare’s comments to Parliament, the people of the Solomon Islands have no real clue what RAMSI is doing still apart from aiding the law and order sector.
It is time for a clearer understanding of what RAMSI has done and is still doing.
By FRANK SHORT
Former Commissioner of Police