Militia leaders and fighters surrendered weapons and ammunition in 2003 after the international mission restored peace to the islands. Photo: Gary Ramage

Militia leaders and fighters surrendered weapons and ammunition in 2003 after the international mission restored peace to the islands. Photo: Gary Ramage

As RAMSI's costly Solomon Islands rescue mission ends, its gains may vanish swiftly

30 June 2017

On Friday, one of Australia’s most significant, and expensive, foreign policy forays of recent times will come to an end. Over the last 14 years, more than $3 billion was spent on a tiny regional neighbour; a country most Australians would struggle to pinpoint on a map. The results are mixed and the gains far from assured.

Solomon Islands found its way onto the Howard government radar in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks. As the self-appointed deputy sheriff in the Pacific, it fell on the Australian taxpayer to bail out a dysfunctional state that was the subject of a five-year, low-level civil conflict.

Australian troops dramatically disembarked on the shores of Red Beach on the outskirts of sleepy Honiara in 2003, joining their police counterparts. The same site that, about 60 years earlier, was the landing of allied troops in what was to be a turning point of World War II.

The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands comprised personnel from 15 Pacific Island states. However, it was a coalition largely in name; Australia devised, led and funded. That Australia decided to so emphatically intervene in this small archipelago was perplexing, representing a significant shift in regional policy. Only six months earlier, foreign minister Alexander Downer had scoffed at the idea, saying an intervention “would not work … foreigners do not have answers for the deep-seated problems afflicting Solomon Islands”.

Fears that the country posed a staging-post for international terrorism featured prominently in the public explanations for the policy U-turn, a prospect most Solomon Islanders would find laughable. Posturing to our allies – and potential Asian rivals – undeniably played a role, too.

RAMSI’s key successes came quickly. The fighting stopped immediately, militants were arrested and high-powered firearms were taken off the streets. State agencies could reopen their doors and focus on the recovery. For this, Solomon Islanders remain eternally grateful. But after early gains, progress became more difficult, and even more expensive.

The messy, protracted and thankless task of state-building proved just as challenging in Solomon Islands as in any other global hot spot. Efforts to prop up hollowed-out state institutions, mainly by placing Australian public servants and consultants in them, had mixed results, often with little to show. Predictably, many of the visitors floundered, anticipating that Australian fixes would neatly apply in their new environment. Their bulging, tax-free pay packets did little to endear them to their Solomon Islander counterparts.

The lion’s share of Australian aid went to the Solomon Islands police. Having played a highly partisan role in the conflict, this involved an almost complete rebuilding of the force. Undoubtedly with great exasperation to the Australian Federal Police, tasked with helping this process, the local police remain the subject of universal derision, widely regarded as incompetent. A lack of progress in tackling pervasive corruption is the main source of public irritation. However, even basic policing tasks remain a challenge. An inability, or unwillingness, to respond to routine requests for help instils little confidence that they are up to tackling the big issues.

To read the entire article by Daniel Evans, visit the Canberra Times website.

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