Hopes for peace in Solomon Islands after end of RAMSI

Traditional dancers mark the 10th anniversary of RAMSI in the Solomon Islands in 2013. Photo: Neil Sands/AFP/Getty Images.

A 14-year mission to restore stability to the Solomon Islands has come to an end. Those involved in RAMSI say it has made a real difference, but acknowledge more must be done if peace is to endure. Sam Sachdeva reports.

Will peace last in the Solomon Islands?

It’s a question on the minds of many in and outside of the country, with the end of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands - RAMSI for short.

The international mission, which has come to an end this week, has been running for 14 years after an outbreak of violence forced neighbouring countries to step in and help.

Commonly referred to as “the tensions”, fighting between those from the Guadalcanal and Malaita islands from 1998 to 2003 caused the deaths of about 200 people, with thousands more made homeless.

Law and order broke down, with one finance minister resigning after signing a cheque at gunpoint made out to militants.

Australia and New Zealand had rejected earlier calls to intervene, but in 2003 led a mission of thousands of troops, police and security personnel - what became RAMSI.

Riots in Honiara following the country’s 2006 election led to a surge of personnel, but in 2013, military troops left and the focus moved to policing.

James Batley, a former Australian High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands who led RAMSI in its early days, says it’s clear on the ground that the country is in a far better position than 14 years ago.

“The memory of the tensions is clear. It’s amazing the stories the people are telling here - reliving those really dark days, there’s a lot of emotion around, people talking about suffering, hurt, people being afraid and just that sense of liberation that they felt when the intervention arrived.”

Batley says RAMSI “demonstrably strengthened” public institutions like police, the courts and government ministries.

“These are the basic building blocks of what we think of as the modern state - it’s not elaborate but it’s the fundamental set of institutions that countries need.”

Law and order a success, questions over state building

Dr Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University who has made several trips to the Solomons, says the RAMSI intervention prevented the collapse of the country.

When you have people saying to you...they can now walk safely to the market to buy food, their kids can go to school - the devil is in the details but it was absolutely the right decision.”

Perhaps the most visible success has been in the restoration of law and order.

Police Minister Paula Bennett, in the Solomons with a Kiwi delegation to mark RAMSI’s end, says the country has come a long way since the mission began, with the country’s police force now “a reliable and professional part of securing stability”.

NZ Police Commissioner Mike Bush says Kiwi cops, along with those from Australia and the Pacific, have helped to mentor, support, and train members of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, who were rearmed in May for the first time in 14 years.

“We’ve seen them, as well as the government and community as a whole, come a long way over the time we’ve been here.”

Batley says the Solomons police force “looks nothing like it used to”, with two-thirds of its members new since 2003 as militants were stripped out.

However, RAMSI was not about simply keeping the peace, but “state building”.

Bennett argues that focus was necessary to “restore the basic machinery of government”.

“Peacekeeping alone would not have worked because the government of Solomon Islands needed to have the institutions in place to be to sustain the peace.”

Batley agrees, but concedes RAMSI’s impact on services like health and education was not as strong as originally hoped - in part due to the country’s complex geography, with the large number of islands making it difficult to deliver services outside of Honiara.

“I’m not saying there wasn’t an impact...but the question is, has it met expectations? The answer is probably no.

“[Locals] want to have police officers not just occasionally visiting but living in their communities, they want better supplied clinics with more nurses, they better schools and more teachers and that sort of thing.”

'Parallel bureaucracy'

In early days, Powles says there was “effectively a parallel bureaucracy” in place, without much done to build local capacity.

While that changed over time, she believes the gap hasn’t been fully addressed, with important discussions about national identity and building peace only reaching a sense of urgency in recent months.

“The problem is not engaging sufficiently well with existing bureaucracies in the process of state building means that you are not necessarily ingraining a sense of ownership over the process.”

The People’s Survey, carried out independently up until 2013, often highlighted concerns about the legitimacy and credibility of the Solomons government, Powles says.

Batley says early consultation between RAMSI and the Solomons government was “very frequent but essentially informal”, with personal links triumphing over formal structures for consultation.

While that changed, he believes the country’s political system has to grow and mature.

“Politics is really still very much about, ‘What does my own MP deliver to me personally’...

“Elections aren’t held on big national issues, they’re very local, very particularised, so the incentives for politicians are really to focus on their own constituency and what they can do for them.”

With a small private sector, Batley says the government is still the largest single source of wealth in the Solomons - one of the reasons for constant allegations about corruption.

He believes there is reason for optimism, with an increasing number of locals taking up seasonal labour opportunities in Australia and New Zealand and the economy developing in some “newish” areas like tourism.

“There are tourist boats coming to the islands now, which you’d never dream of in a million years before.”

However, Powles says it may take generations, “and certainly several cycles of government”, before RAMSI’s effect on the economy and public institutions can be known for sure.

NZ's small but significant role

New Zealand’s contribution to RAMSI has been small but significant, according to Kiwi officials.

While Australia put over AU$2.5 billion into the mission, Bennett says New Zealand spent about $150 million - although that figure does not include aid or education spending.

About 2000 Kiwis have been involved in RAMSI over its 14-year duration, including over 1000 Defence Force personnel, about 800 police and other government officials and volunteers.

Asked about the difference we have made, Bennett points to dramatic increases in tax revenue as part of our role in a financial management programme, along with helping the Solomons’ IRD to upgrade its systems and develop leaders.

Outside of RAMSI, New Zealand has led the way in the country’s education sector, providing over $100m of aid as one of the NZ Aid Programme’s largest investments.

Bennett says that has led to impressive results, with literacy and numeracy levels among Year 6 students more than doubling and 2000 primary school teachers going through training.

Powles says while New Zealand’s impact has not been as visible as Australia’s, the approach of Kiwi police and soldiers towards locals was seen in a favourable light.

“There was always the joke that if you go into a taxi, they ask if you’re an Australian or a Kiwi, and if you say you’re a Kiwi you get a [discount] off the fare.”

Bush agrees, saying “the Kiwi culture that comes second nature to a lot of us” helped to build bonds with locals.

“The average Kiwi is extremely resourceful with a wide skillset which they used to help the community, giving up their own time to part in sports and helped with community building projects.”

Batley says New Zealand should feel proud about its involvement, with the two countries “joined at the hip” when it came to leadership.

“My deputy was a Kiwi, and that’s continued to be the case...I think it’s really important, that level of trust that exists between the two governments and also senior people on ground.”
Rising to the challenge

While RAMSI may be coming to an end, New Zealand and other countries still have a role to play in the Solomons.

Bennett says the Government will continue to provide development funding to the country through its aid programme, focussing on economic development and creating jobs to maintain stability.

In addition, Bush says a small number of police from New Zealand and other countries will remain in the Solomons, assisting the police force and continuing mentoring “to help them reach their full potential”.

The Solomon Islands itself remains keen for outside support: earlier in June, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare asked UN peacekeepers to provide support after RAMSI left.

Powles says that external support is critical, with a real risk that the underlying tensions could return to the surface.

“Intervention missions freeze these dynamics - they don’t make them go away, so once RAMSI departs, once they lift the lid on it, then these same issues will have potential to re-emerge if they are triggered.

“We need to be very vigilant about this, not just pat ourselves on the back and say ‘mission accomplished’ in terms of RAMSI, as has been done in the past.”

Batley agrees, and says the “extraordinary expressions of gratitude” from locals are mixed with a recognition of the work still to be done.

“One of the themes [is that] we’re celebrating two things - we’re celebrating the thank you to RAMSI, but also it’s the start of a new chapter, let’s get this right.

“This is a challenge, we’ve all got to rise to the challenge.”