Commentary | 30 June 2017

Australia prevented a disaster on the doorstep

Originally published in the Australian Financal Review.

Originally published in the Australian Financal Review.

Since 2003 Australia has led the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands to restore peace and security to one of our nearest neighbours. On June 30 it came to an end, marking the conclusion of the longest Australian-led intervention mission in our history. It represents our boldest attempt at state building, and in many ways can be heralded as a success. It should not be forgotten by the Australian public.

By the time prime minister John Howard gave the order to implement "Operation Helpem Fren", the Solomon Islands had descended into anarchy. Ethnic tension had spilled over into open conflict, and had completely compromised the ranks of the police. The economy was nosediving and along with it was the government's ability to pay for services and salaries. Over the four years that "the tensions" plagued the country the Solomon Islands prime ministers of the day had made numerous calls for help from their neighbours. Finally, on July 24, 2003, Australia, along with New Zealand and other Pacific nations, answered the call.

Up until this point Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had resisted calls to intervene, fearing that it would lead to a protracted Australian engagement with no end in sight and limited benefit to Australian strategic interests. As it became clear that the Solomon Islands was quickly becoming a failed state, Howard and Downer worried that it had the potential to become an incubator for terrorism or transnational crime on Australia's doorstep. The strategic thinking changed.

Against the early advice of the bureaucracy for a more incremental approach, Howard opted for an ambitious "shock and awe" style intervention that would swiftly restore law and justice in the country and engage in long-term state-building. Over the next 14 years almost 10,000 Australian military, police and civilian personnel along with peers from every Pacific island nation, even tiny Niue, served in RAMSI. Six lives of RAMSI personnel were lost. All up it has cost the Australian taxpayer nearly $3 billion.

And it was worth it.

In many ways RAMSI can be seen as a model intervention. It quickly restored law and order, arrested about 1 per cent of the country's population (not all at once) and recovered and destroyed more than 3700 guns in an amnesty agreement. Since 2003 the Solomon Islands has had one of the lowest rates of gun crime in the world. All of this occurred without Australian forces firing a single shot, and only one lethal incident from the entire RAMSI force.

Popular support

The professionalism shown by the men and women of the intervention is reflected by popular support for RAMSI from the people of the Solomon Islands never wavering below 85 per cent. Even Manasseh Sogavare, Solomon Islands current prime minister and one of the most aggressive RAMSI detractors in 2006 and 2007, seems to have genuinely reformed and has spent the week passionately thanking the intervention as celebrations take place in Honiara. Such positive endorsement for a foreign intervention 14 years on is unheard of.

The effectiveness of RAMSI in restoring and maintaining law and order, which received the lion's share of funding over the past 14 years, is without question. Turning to the objective of state building is where RAMSI's legacy becomes murkier.

The public sector has been restored and institutions stabilised. But the economy has become deeply aid dependent, supplemented by grossly unsustainable logging. Rapid population growth and rampant urbanisation will put further strain on Honiara, while rural areas remain desperate for services. Corruption remains endemic in the political class and little has been done to address the underlying causes of the tensions.

One could argue that had the priorities of RAMSI been different and the resources better allocated, some of these challenges could have been addressed. But many are simply beyond the ability of any external actor or intervention to solve, and remain the responsibilities of the political leaders of a sovereign Solomon Islands. RAMSI has righted the ship that is the Solomon Islands but it is up to their politicians to steer it in the right direction. Unfortunately, strong and progressive leadership that can break the toxic clientelist political culture that fed much of the initial unrest in the Solomon Islands is still lacking.

Critics may still argue that despite these achievements the intervention was both too costly and too long to still be in our national interest. Still, the tangible result of preventing a failed state on our border and improving the welfare of the people of one our nearest neighbours is more than we can say about other interventions Australia has recently participated in.

The conclusion of RAMSI marks an end to an important chapter of our Pacific story. While its legacy is still to be fully written, it should not be forgotten by the Australian people. It certainly won't be by the people of the Solomon Islands.