The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) meeting has never had so much of Australia’s attention.
We usually get the customary shot of leaders in their culturally appropriate shirts flashed on the TV news, but it’s not every day you see a frantic mob of Australian journalists descending on a Pacific Island prime minister for comment, as happened here on Sunday.
The ongoing spat between Australia, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea has been top of the agenda this week at the 37th PIF meeting in Denarau Island, Fiji.
Despite most parties maintaining that the dispute is strictly a bilateral issue between Australia and the Solomons, the reality is that other Pacific Island nations have taken sides – even if only behind closed doors. There are obvious concerns for Australia’s increasingly heavy-handed tactics in the Pacific, and Prime Minister John Howard’s insistence that the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is a model "for other interventions that might be needed in the future".
News that the Solomon Islands Prime Minister’s office had been raided by RAMSI police officers last Friday afternoon was met by Melanesian delegates – who were in a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) at the time – with disbelief and anger.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called the raid – in which Australian members of RAMSI’s Participating Police Force kicked down the door of his office and seized a fax machine – "totally unnecessary and provocative. The Prime Minister’s office is the nerve centre of a government, the custodian of State secrets, and no-one acting in the interests of foreigners is allowed to go anywhere near that, let alone kicking the door. That is quite serious to the Solomon Islands and we are not taking it lightly."
"If they wanted the fax machine we would have given it to them," he said.
On Monday, leaders of the MSG, comprising Vanuatu, Fiji, PNG and the Solomons, released a statement specifically condemning the actions of Australian police in the raid. (Although his name was on the statement, Fijian Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase, has not signed it.) PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare called it an attack on the sovereign rights of Pacific Island countries.
But arriving in Denarau Island later that day, Howard denied the raid had anything to do with Australia. "Presumably the police commissioner had a legal warrant. He could only have obtained that through the judicial processes of the Solomon Islands," he said.
"You can’t negotiate whether someone faces a criminal charge. That’s a matter for the police. It’s a cardinal principle of the operation of our system of government that you don’t interfere in police prosecutions."
Of course, the judicial processes in the Solomon Islands are currently under the watch of RAMSI. The Police Commissioner is Shane Castles – an Australian – whom Sogavare claims to have sacked, but who yesterday declared he was still in the job.
Just who is in control of what in the Solomons is the very issue on which this growing conflict is based. Much of the Australian media have focused on suspended Attorney General Julian Moti, who is wanted in Australia on child sex charges, as the centerpiece of the Solomons-Australia dispute – but according to Sogavare, Moti is a distraction. He says the real issue at hand is a Commission of Inquiry into the Honiara riots of 18 and 19 April, in which large parts of Honiara were destroyed.
Sogavare claims that Howard phoned him soon after the Commission of Inquiry was established and specifically stated that he did not want Australian personnel to be embarrassed by such an inquiry. He says the Australian Government does not want the Commission of Inquiry to go ahead because it will likely uncover significant RAMSI failures.
Howard’s response to this claim in a press conference on Monday was a deadpan, "I don’t know what he’s talking about".
Regardless of whether this is true, the fact that the Australian Government has gone to elaborate lengths to stop a Commission of Inquiry that seeks to answer how large parts of Honiara were burned to the ground during RAMSI’s watch needs to be interrogated.
The Australian Government claims that two of the Commission’s terms of reference were designed to get two Solomon Islands MPs (who are being detained for their role in the violence) out of jail. But given that the terms of reference have been accepted by the Solomon Islands High Court – in fact, by an Australian judge – it’s not hard to see why Pacific Islanders find Australia’s preaching of "good governance", and selective appeals to "the rule of law", hypocritical.
As the Pacific Island Forum concludes today, there will be some changes to the structure of RAMSI, such as a new consultative committee and a taskforce set up to review the mission. But Sogavare’s push to significantly reduce Australia’s role in RAMSI has not been successful.
Meanwhile, the focus on RAMSI has taken some of the heat out of the other contentious issues at the meeting, such as Australia’s refusal to accept guest workers from the Pacific.
An op-ed in the Fiji Sun yesterday read: "Let’s not forget that it’s not so long ago that Australia wanted to dump its unwanted refugees on us. The message is clear: we’re prepared to use you as a human dumping ground but we’re not willing to help your poor and unskilled, even at no real cost to ourselves."
When asked on ABC TV whether Australia would consider increasing labour mobility as a peace offering to the Pacific, the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer responded with a high-pitched: "Peace offering!? We just believe in upholding the rule of law. It’s quite a simple proposition."
A senior official within the Pacific Islands Forum said, off the record, that he had warned Australia about their attitude to the Pacific – that if they overplay their hand, they’ll end up with rocks being thrown at Australians.
He said one should never underestimate the role of personalities in the disputes that Australia has found itself in throughout the region.
The next move to watch will be Sogavare’s return to the Solomon Islands tomorrow, amid reports he will be arrested on arrival.
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