How long is a piece of string? RAMSI, New Zealand, and posterity

We flew to Honiara, Wednesday, to mark the 10th anniversary of RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.  The Prime Minister, 3 cabinet ministers, Phil Goff, Winston Peters, Peter Dunne and me; several Pacific leaders; NZ officials – several hundred of us, all up.  Australian ministers for foreign affairs and aid, plus officials, flew in from Canberra.

Up at 4.00 am, back to Whenuapai at 11.00 pm.

I offset my flying, at personal cost.

RAMSI is regarded as a success, as far as these things go in the real world. Post-colonial land grievances and economic deprivation caused The Tension a decade back and the Solomons descended into the kind of anarchy prosperous neighbours dread for a thousand reasons.

A regional military force, led by Australia and New Zealand with 13 island states in support, went in and ‘restored order’.  With the exception of a brief relapse in ’06, stability has been maintained.

Things have changed.  Back in the days of classical UN peacekeeping, a lightly-armed military force (the ‘blue helmets’) would patrol a ceasefire between two belligerent member states, firing only in self-defence.

Today, in ‘complex emergency situations’, matters are more complicated and the response mechanism is more refined.  UN or regional forces go into a single member state under a ‘robust’ force-mandate from the UN Security Council, empowered to initiate force for a mission’s objective (‘all necessary means’).  Usually in a small ‘failed state’ situation, the international force has numerical and logistical superiority and to turn up and hang around is sufficient – there generally isn’t much bloodshed.  One Australian was killed over the 10-year period.

Partly as a result, the military is able to play a supporting role in such an overall mission, success being measured by the amount of time the troops remain ‘behind the wire’ in the compound.  Peacekeeping has largely given way to peace-enforcement, and then to peace-building – restoring the state’s capacity to govern itself again – disarmament & demobilisation, rehabilitation, infrastructure repair, truth & reconciliation, justice and law & order, education and economic development.  Regional assistance with the police, the jurists, the planners and teachers – with the military over-the-horizon, or in the local barracks.

Then to withdraw.

But when to withdraw?  That is the question.

The official regional view is that things are settled now, and that a regional mission cannot go on forever.

But is that the true answer?  After the official ceremony where we all congratulated each other and the band had marched past a sprinkling of mainly expats, we got to speak with locals back in town – they who know the arcana of the society’s dynamics.

And they are less sanguine.  They do not question the achievements of RAMSI and especially of the Kiwi contingents – we always get national compliments for this kind of work and I suspect it’s genuine. So, it is a success – as far as it goes.

But foreigners cannot settle domestic scores.  They can only prevent bloodshed, set up frameworks for catharsis and remediation, laying the foundation for a new vision.  The locals must do the rest, the hard part – and genuinely.  It is not easy to forgive, especially if the causes of hurt have not been decently laid to rest.

In the case of the Solomons, two problems persist – the two that ignited The Tension. The first is the land grievance. The second is official corruption.

The TRC reported to the Prime Minister recently.  The PM was meant to convey the report to Parliament but forgot.  So one of the Catholic priests did God’s work by leaking it to the media, before retiring back to Ontario. And a new law is before Parliament, giving yet more capacity to constituency MPs to dispense public funds in their bailiwicks.  Not everyone’s favourite item in Transparency International.

So, by and large, the locals would rather have RAMSI stay. That way, the opposition, the media, maybe the public, feel more assured.

But RAMSI cannot stay forever.

How long should it stay on?  I think it should pull out, as planned. A sizeable international police force remains.  Training continues.  The local militia remain unarmed, albeit agile and ferocious with their pepper-spray.  This should be enough, if the ingredient of genuine political leadership is applied.  And the regional military can reassemble if it all turns to custard again.

So let us show some faith in the Melanesian ability in self-governance, post, post-colonial.

And, let us pray.


2 Comments Posted

  1. “Post-colonial land grievances and economic deprivation caused The Tension a decade back”

    Actually that’s a decade and a half back. There was five years of violence before the intervention. According to Michael Field, intervention suddenley resulted, not because of concerns about the ethnic violence, but after the Aussie banks had to close up shop in Honiara due to the increasing disorder.

    “UN or regional forces go into a single member state under a ‘robust’ force-mandate from the UN Security Council”

    Worth noting that RAMSI didn’t have any formal UN mandate.

Comments are closed.