Mission Accomplished In The Solomon Islands?


Australian taxpayers have been footing the bill for Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) since 2003, when the country's then PM requested regional assistance in the face of growing civil unrest and corruption that reached into the highest offices.

Nine years on, on Anzac Day this year, Defence Minister Stephen Smith made the surprise announcement that Australian troops will withdraw from the Solomon Islands in the second half of next year.

So how successful has the Australian-led mission been?

Last month I visited the Guadalcanal Beach Resort in Honiara, operational headquarters of RAMSI, as part of a four-day Defence Department tour. I travelled with a group of Australian civilian bosses of the Defence Reservists who are serving in RAMSI.

Once the public face of security in this troubled country, the Australian troops are now in a self-described "transition phase" as they prepare to leave. A public order management exercise, staged for our benefit, is about as much action as the troops can now expect in their four-month tour here.

But while our Defence Force might be moving on, Australia's role in the Solomon Islands is far from over. The policing component of RAMSI, made up almost entirely of Australian Federal Police officers, have no plans to leave anytime soon.

"We don't talk about withdrawal. We don't plan on withdrawing from here," the Deputy Commander of RAMSI's Participating Police Force, Noel Scobell, told me when I interviewed him in Honiara.

"Our position revolves around the capabilities of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) and ensuring as best we can that they are in a position to provide the policing services to the Solomon Islands that are required."

RAMSI is unique as a peacekeeping mission: operationally it is the police, rather than the military, who run the show.

When the Australians arrived, one of their first tasks was to disarm the RSIPF. The local force was so implicated in the violence that they could no longer be relied on to maintain security, so the AFP also took control of frontline policing. Now, they've stepped back from that role to an advisory one. Their task is to ensure the local police have the skills and logistical support necessary to maintain security once they leave.

Scobell says he is "very comfortable with how the [local police]are progressing".

But it's unclear when — or if — the RSIPF will be rearmed.

Many Solomon Islanders think they're not ready. Locals say the "wantok system" — in which Solomon Islanders are expected to share goods and money with their friends and family — was a big problem for the local police during the tension: wantoks would simply help themselves to their guns.

Outside a shop in a busy Honiara street I meet with local James Kili. As a former superintendent of the paramilitary unit of the local police, Kili was intimately involved in the pre-2003 tension.

Kili tells me he's glad the Australians are here — even though they sent him to jail on charges of assault and wilful damage for his role in the civil unrest.

"Most of the police officers were caught in the middle of the situation at that time," he tells me. "If we fight back one side then we get killed, so we just play in middle. But people saw us walking along with the militia and they would say we are joining them."

However, he accuses the Australians of political interference.

Kili tells me that in 2010, former commander of militia group the Malaita Eagle Force, Jimmy "Rasta" Lusibaea, one of the key players in the unrest, won a seat in parliament and served, for a short time, as fisheries minister.

But in what Kili and others claim was the political interference by the Australians, acting in their advisory role to the local police, Lusibaea was charged soon after with an offence that dated back nine years and sent to prison again — despite the fact that he'd already spent years there for his role in the unrest.

"He got out of prison two years ago and they didn't charge him [then]. When he ran for the election — and won the election — the charge came in," says Kili. "It's commonsense to ask why: why did you wait for him to get into parliament?"

"RAMSI was behind that," he tells me.

When I question Noel Scobell about the case he denies the AFP had anything to do with charging Lusibaea.

But there's no doubt that the AFP has form in this area.

On my last visit to the Solomon Islands six years ago, the AFP were chasing down attorney general-elect, Julian Moti, on child sex charges — which had already been thrown out by a Vanuatu court — because they didn't agree with his appointment.

The Australians were also pushing to prevent an independent inquiry into the Honiara riots, which had been badly mismanaged — some claim deliberately — by the AFP.

As I reported for New Matilda in 2006, RAMSI marked the beginning of a new trend in international peacekeeping. Instead of the traditional "blue hat" UN mission, the early 2000s saw a push towards bi- and multi-lateral "peace and stability missions" — and our own federal police were at the forefront of the trend.

The move to put large numbers of Australian police on the ground in key nation-building positions within other countries caused considerable tension within the region.

Andrew Goldsmith, co-author of Policing the Neighbourhood, a three-year study into the AFP interventions in East Timor, the Solomons and PNG, told me at the time that our use of police offshore was unprecedented.

"I know of no other police force in the world that has had to respond in such a way across areas which, if we are to be completely frank, are not just about policing," he said.

"One could be sceptical about some of the objectives behind ‘capacity building' because it's really teaching police in these other countries to do things our way… There is self interest, there's no question."

"There are [also]new players in the Pacific in which Australia might have a strategic interest," he said. "There are big geopolitical games here."

The AFP's move into peacekeeping represented "a new, foreign policy focus" for the force, he told me.

Indeed, former AFP commissioner Mick Keelty once famously described the AFP as "the deployable arm of Australian government policy".

On this trip, when I asked about the AFP's strategic motivations in the Solomon Islands, one officer candidly told me the force's foray into the Pacific was part of an Australian Government push to shore up a spot on the UN Security Council.

When I put this to Deputy Commander Scobell, he didn't deny it. "The [AFP's] International Deployment Group model is really well regarded by the UN and they are interested in how that's developed, so if they thought there was a role for us within the UN then I'm sure they'll speak to the appropriate people about that," he said.

The same officer told me that as RAMSI draws down, the AFP were actively "looking for other work" in the region to strengthen Australia's position as a regional power.

At the Guadalcanal Beach Resort on the wall beside Harry's Bar — named, I am told, after Harold Keke when it was used to hold the former militia leader when he was captured by the Australians in 2003 — is a list of "talking points" that the Australian soldiers are to use when speaking with civilians about the imminent military withdrawal.

The list contains reassuring one-liners such as "RAMSI is not leaving today or tomorrow", and "RAMSI's transition will enable more Solomon Islanders to take the lead in shaping their country's future".

Speaking to locals in Honiara market on a busy Saturday afternoon, it's clear that the vast majority of Solomon Islanders do want RAMSI to stay.

"If RAMSI goes back it won't be safe in the Solomons," Jane, a 40-year-old housewife, says. "They should stay until the country is safe and can look after itself."

Anna, a 50-year-old cleaner whose house was burnt down during the civil unrest, tells me "Solomon people have no respect for Solomon police — too many Solomon police were involved in the tension — but they respect the Australian police."

"As long as RAMSI stays in the Solomons, everything will be okay."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.