Nearly 14 years after Australian war ships appeared off the coast of Solomon Islands leading the largest expeditionary force in the Pacific since World War Two, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands has come to an end. Its success is such that parents have named their children RAMSI in gratitude for the operation. The man responsible for enabling the mission to take place, Australia’s former Prime Minister John Howard, views RAMSI as 'one of Australia’s … finest foreign policy achievements'. The past week has been full of celebrations, and accolades, for the fifteen countries contributing to the Mission, in particular for the Participating Police Force (PPF), which underpinned the Mission’s initial focus to restore law and order and later, to help rebuild policing capability across the Solomon Islands.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) is justifiably proud of its role in RAMSI, as it heralded a transformation in the way we engage with our partners across the Pacific. RAMSI was unique because it was designed to prevent state failure, rather than respond to it afterwards. Not only was RAMSI the largest civilian police-led intervention of its type in the world, it was the first time the AFP was responsible for maintaining logistical support for an international mission. And we had just 70 days to work with our Australian and international partners to get personnel actively deployed. But while it is comforting to pat ourselves on the back and celebrate past achievements, we must also look forward, to ensure the lessons we have learned are not lost. Because one of RAMSI’s greatest achievements may just be the way it has helped to build and cement relationships across law enforcement agencies in the South Pacific.
The adjustment phase
In the initial phases of the operation, the PPF focused on consolidating the rule of law and removing corrupt police officers from the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF). As the security situation improved, our officers began focusing on capacity development activities with the RSIPF. Initially, this was not as successful as we had hoped. Local officers did not attend workshops and classes. Some police failed to turn up to work. PPF members, particularly from the AFP, became frustrated. To get the job done, they began taking on a higher proportion of operational tasks, pushing the RSIPF aside, and substituting rather than developing capacity. It became apparent that RAMSI had created ‘false expectations’; and the perceptions of ‘two separate police forces in Solomon Islands’ consistently worked to the disadvantage of RSIPF, when compared to its PPF counterparts. Some RSIPF members resented the well-resourced RAMSI officers, who appeared to have little understanding of Melanesian cultural norms and traditions, but still wanted to tell the locals what to do and how to do it. Clearly, we needed to re-evaluate the way we were doing business if we wanted the Mission to succeed.
We commissioned research and reviews, and also drew on existing lessons and evidence relating to capacity development. We learnt that while RAMSI was unique, we were encountering some of the same issues and challenges the Australian Government had previously faced in law and justice programs. We realised the dangers associated with exporting western models of policing, and the long-term nature and requirements of capacity development. We also learnt that policing in the Solomon Islands needed to combine both traditional and modern values, and that while ‘marrying’ culture and modern policing was difficult – it was not impossible. We recognised the need to jointly identify the policing capabilities the Solomon Islands Government and RSIPF expected to develop and manage over time, and to prioritise those areas.
This involved a shift from the PPF ‘doing’ to ‘supporting,’ and a focus on building on existing strengths rather than filling gaps in capacity. A key step was to adapt our pre-deployment training according to what we were learning. We drew on the skills and strengths of our PPF partners from nations across the Pacific Islands, including New Zealand, to ensure deployed members of the PPF had a better understanding of Melanesian cultural norms and traditions. Many Pacific Island officers helped to narrow the perception gap between local and non-local police in the community thanks to their ability to converse in the pidgin lingua franca of the Solomon Islands. This, in turn, helped the PPF to work more collegiately with individuals in the RSIPF. Another key step was the transition from PPF officers undertaking active policing duties to taking on roles as mentors and observers. Again, adapting our pre-deployment training, and engaging development experts to assist in this training, helped to ensure deployed officers had the skills to teach, guide and train, in addition to the policing skills they already had.
The AFP has now adopted many of the principles developed as part of this phase of the Mission, so that wherever our officers are sent in the future, they will have a better understanding of how to work with partners in building and developing law enforcement capability. The AFP has also invested a significant amount of time and energy in ensuring it effectively translates the strategic intent of its deployments through better program design, delivery, monitoring and evaluation. This includes drawing on lessons learnt and adopting a range of development models, including a thematic approach to addressing gender-based violence and gender inequality in all of our efforts. We use these processes to identify the skill sets, limitations and other factors that will affect how the AFP can successfully deliver on its mandate. Rather than focusing on immediate, short-term goals, we work with our partners to identify the desired end state, to ensure all deployments are future-focused and built to achieve ongoing success.
And we’ve worked to create doctrines that ensure the AFP is consistent in how it plans future deployments. This includes building on the lessons we learned through RAMSI in relation to capacity development, culture, coaching, human rights and gender issues. And finally, we plan for an exit strategy or transition to standard police-to-police cooperation as part of the initial phase of each and every mission. This helps us to identify time-frames for each objective, enables us to track our progress, and adjust the mission as required to achieve better outcomes.