First published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 June 2017
By John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia
On June 30, Australia’s 14-year participation in, and leadership of, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) concludes. I regard Australia’s involvement in RAMSI as one of Australia’s, and my government’s, finest foreign policy achievements.
From 1998 to 2003, Solomon Islands – our fourth-closest neighbour – was ravaged by lawlessness, violence and rampant criminality. The causes were complex, but can largely be explained by conflict between the people of the provinces of Guadalcanal and Malaita.
These groups were involved in a cycle of revenge killings. Children were being press-ganged into armed service; provision of basic services, including electricity and water, had ceased; and militias were holding the government to ransom, extorting large sums of money from the state. By 2003, Solomon Islands was on the cusp of becoming a failed state.
From the late 1990s onwards, my government received numerous requests for assistance of various kinds from the Solomon Islands government. Each time we firmly but politely declined. The response was always that Australia did not wish to become embroiled in Solomon Islands’ internal affairs.
By early 2003 however, both foreign minister Downer and I had come to the conclusion that it was no longer in Australian or Solomon Islands interests to maintain the previous attitude of non-intervention.
We had formed the view that the internal conflict in the Solomon Islands had become so serious that it posed a risk to Australia’s interests. Among other things, a failed state on our doorstep could provide the environment for hostile actors to flourish and jeopardise our national security. Nonetheless, we retained the belief that the people of Solomon Islands carried a heavy responsibility to address their own complex, deep-seated problems.
Having decided to abandon non-intervention, Australia responded positively to a formal request from the Solomon Islands to intervene. Thus on July 24, 2003, an Australian-led multinational force landed in the Solomon Islands – the RAMSI mission had begun.
It was overwhelmingly successful in achieving its primary objective of restoring law and order. RAMSI destroyed more than 3700 guns in its first week. In its third week RAMSI, with the help of mediators, negotiated the surrender of renegade militants. By the end of its third year, RAMSI had made 6300 arrests for militant and criminal activity. Today, Solomon Islands has a very low crime rate by global standards and one of the lowest rates of gun crime in the world.
In addition to the restoration of law and order by Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police personnel, RAMSI deployed civilian advisers who worked to help government officials restore the basic functions of state. These advisers focused on enabling the government to maintain law and order through increasing the effectiveness of courts, police and prisons; reviving the economy by stabilising the country’s finances, reducing debt and restoring investor confidence; and enabling a struggling bureaucracy to re-launch public services like hospitals and schools.
I would like to make a special mention here of the decisive role played by key Australian personnel at this early, critical stage of RAMSI’s operations. At the outset, overall oversight of the mission was provided through Nick Warner (then of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), as RAMSI special co-ordinator. The policing element of the mission was under the command of Assistant Commissioner Ben McDevitt of the Australian Federal Police, while the military element was led by the Australian Defence Force’s Lieutenant-Colonel John Frewen.
Each of them worked exceptionally well both as individuals and as teammates to ensure that the mission was the great success that it was. Australia and Solomon Islands owe them a considerable debt of gratitude for their leadership at this crucial time, not to mention the many personnel who worked under their command.
Importantly, though, RAMSI was a regional effort. Although led by Australia, RAMSI was a Pacific initiative, with 15 member states of the Pacific Islands Forum contributing police, military, diplomatic and advisory personnel to the mission. This was the first time the region had come together on this scale, and it set an important precedent for future co-operation.
Benefits and costs
It demonstrated that Pacific island countries can work together to assist a neighbour in need. It also enhanced the effectiveness of the mission itself by encouraging more local solutions to problems that may have struck a chord with Solomon Islands’ nearer neighbours.
These successes came at a cost, however. RAMSI’s total bill to Australia was about $2.8 billion over 14 years, and RAMSI demonstrated that intervention in another state’s affairs, even if by invitation, should be an option of last resort.
Given the alternative of a failed state on our doorstep, I believe that it was a price worth paying. As RAMSI finishes its work, it is a good time to remember that Australia’s role – achieved through a combination of diplomatic, aid, policing and military resources – was firmly in our national interests.
Solomon Islands is a very different place today to what it was in 2003, but the road to building a sustainable peace and a resilient nation is long. Foreigners can help, but they can never understand a country as much as its citizens.
It is ultimately up to Solomon Islanders to determine what kind of country they want to live in and how they should address the wrongs of the past to build a brighter future.
John Howard was the 25th Prime Minister of Australia, serving from 11 March 1996 to 3 December 2007.