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Solomons' gun amnesty: A stunning achievement

Solomons' gun amnesty: A stunning achievement

Nick Warner, now the Director-General of ASIS, was the first Special Coordinator of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (2003-2004). This post is drawn from a speech he made in Honiara on 25 July for the 10th anniversary of RAMSI.

Nick Warner (right) briefs media in Honiara in August 2003. Weapons handed in to RAMSI are displayed. Photo courtesy of Defence.

21 August marks the 10th anniversary of the conclusion of the firearms amnesty in Solomon Islands. This amnesty, which saw the surrendering and destruction of nearly 4000 weapons, was the most stunning achievement of the first year of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands. 

The restoration of law and order and return of the rule of law was the immediate purpose of RAMSI when it arrived in Solomon Islands in July 2003 at the invitation of the government of Solomon Islands. To do this, RAMSI police worked with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force to provide safety and security on the streets and in the villages and to get the guns out of communities.

When compared with the size of the population of Solomon Islands in 2003, the success rate of the amnesty, which was achieved within the first few months of the mission, is to my knowledge yet to be beaten anywhere else in the world.

None of this would have been achieved without one of the most significant partnerships that the mission was to enjoy, the partnering of RAMSI with the National Peace Council of Solomon Islands. Originally set up to monitor and implement the earlier Townsville Peace Agreement, the Council provided RAMSI with the networks on the ground as well as the grass roots intelligence needed to get back the guns, while RAMSI as a neutral outside force was able to provide the Council with the protection it needed to do its job properly. [fold]

The other big achievement of the first year of RAMSI's operations also occurred just a few weeks into the mission. Securing the surrender and the arrest of Harold Keke, the Guadalcanal militant leader who had terrorised his own people on the Weathercoast, was critical. Keke's actions had given others an excuse to carry arms and threaten and intimidate their fellow countrymen and women, in the name of protecting the nation.

The arrest of Keke and the subsequent arrests of militants from all sides of the conflict that flowed from it was the key that unlocked Solomon Islands from the rampant criminal activity and corruption that was being committed under the guise of the ethnic tensions.

As a result and quite quickly, Solomon Islanders were once again able to move freely and without fear through the breadth of the country. A little more slowly, public finances, finally freed from extortion and demands for 'compensation', were stabilised and basic services gradually restored. Within just a few months, public servants were getting paid on time, the sick were able to be treated and have access to medicines, and children were going back to school.

Less than a year later Keke and his cohorts were to be the first of many militants to face their country's own criminal justice system when they stood trial for the murder of the former cabinet minister and Catholic priest Father Augustine Geve. Convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, they were placed in the secure confines of the newly refurbished correctional centre at Rove, one of the many facilities and institutions that the RAMSI partnership was to help rebuild.

The success of RAMSI in its first year of operation lay as much in the willingness of Solomon Islanders to seize the opportunity our mission presented as it did on the region's commitment to doing the right thing. As RAMSI moves into its latest and perhaps final phase, Solomon Islanders have an increasing responsibility to shape the future of their nation.

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