Monday, 10 November 2008 12:14 AM

Rearming the Solomon Islands Police Force (SIPF)

Dear Editor,

I have read that when the Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee met recently to review the Facilitation Act , the Speaker of the National Parliament, Sir Peter Kenilorea, made a statement suggesting that "the government should start rearming the police and that if the government agrees to do so, it is best that the rearming should start in the presence of RAMSI."

I believe that Sir Peter's suggestion has had a mixed reaction from the community, particularly from community organizations and individuals. As the Police Commissioner during the onset of the ethnic violence that first begin in September 1998 and subsequently caused so much bloodshed, suffering and economic and social disruption to an island nation once blessed with the title, "The Happy Isles", I would be appreciative if you would allow me to add my voice to the current debate.

Very soon after I assumed office in July 1997, I was made aware that a consignment of arms was in shipment to Honiara from the United States. The weapons had been bought by the previous government, led by the then Prime Minister Solomon Mamaloni for use by the NRSF. I was deeply concerned that no more arms should reach the Solomons for I had, frankly, been, perturbed by the vast quantity of high powered weapons stored in the police armoury and concerned, too, about the adequacy of their storage and security. I advised Prime Minister, Ulufa'alu to try and divert the shipment and he acted accordingly by having the arms held in New Zealand.

Once the Bougainville crisis eased, I recruited a British born weapons expert, Charles Hosking, to teach the members of the RSIP, including the NRSF personnel, proper handling methods and to draft a human rights training program for the force. At my request, Hosking also submitted a detailed report which contained advice to the government on the acquisition of less lethal arms for use by the police. I regretted that the report was never acknowledged or the alternative arms obtained. (See my letter published in the Pacific Islands Report dated 14 June 2001)

The security of the police armory was aided by the secondment of an officer from the Australian Defence Force who recommended and then undertook major changes to secure the facility. When the militant hostilities and aggression heightened in the months following the raid on the Yandina armoury in December 1998 and the shooting incident which occurred on the island of Bungana, I had provincial held weapons withdrawn to the central armoury to prevent further militant raids. There was already in existence written orders for the use of arms by the police in what was commonly called "Standing Orders" but I considerably added to them and testament to their existence and adequacy was provided in the comprehensive report by the officers of the New Zealand Police following their investigation of the Bungana fatality.

The report has never been made public but it clearly indicated that I, as Police Commissioner, did everything possible to control the use of arms, cognizant of human rights and in accord with accepted international policing standards. The report went on to say that I had been let down by my officers, either neglectfully or willfully.

In an article published in the Solomon Star on July 28 1999, the contributor wrote, as part of a full length feature, "Of the thousands of people who have been victimized by the national inter-ethnic ordeal, the former Solomon Islands Police Commissioner, Frank Short, rather oddly is among the hardest hit. From its shadowy beginnings in the parliamentary attempt to oust the Prime Minister last year to its current stage, the ethnic crisis has seen Mr. Short subjected to character-assassinations of one form or another."

It became a common theme of journalists like Mr. Michael Field of AFP and even Ms. Mary Louise O'Callaghan of the Australian, to add to their articles on the unfolding Solomon's crisis, that "I had done most of my policing in apartheid South Africa," or references to being "straight out of South Africa." Yes, it was true that I had served in South Africa prior to coming to the Solomon's, but it was not true that most of my service had been in that country. I had, in fact, served previously in several Commonwealth countries including Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Vanuatu, St. Helena and in Hong Kong, before the handover to China. My work in South Africa had concentrated on reducing human rights abuses and civil claims. I was also privileged to work in the North West Province Secretariat for Safety and Security where I was the Senior Legal Administrative Officer to the MEC for Safety and Security, part of the ANC led Government of Nelson Mandela.

The constant references to my policing in apartheid South Africa, particularly by Mr. Field in his articles and commentary on the Solomons crisis, could well have proved to be secondary defamation by way of innuendo -- had I taken civil action. I replied to Mr. Field's inaccurate statements in a letter that I wrote to the Pacific Islands Report -- entitled "Nauru's Ban on AFP Correspondent Michael Field," which was published on August 24, 2001.

Despite Ms. O'Callaghan having had a personal interview with me in my office before I left the Solomons, during which time I gave her a copy of a newly printed Purpose and Direction document I had produced; a document setting out a mission, code of conduct and a strategic direction for the police service, Ms. O'Callaghan subsequently wrote two articles which, in my opinion, contained defamatory references about myself. In the first of these, published in the Australian newspaper under the heading "Trouble in Paradise" she wrote, in a couple of paragraphs, "Into the breach has stepped Frank Short, a British policeman appointed by the previous government as police commissioner in 1997. Straight out of South Africa, he views the rise of militancy on Guadalcanal as the war that he had to have, says one observer. He has armed his force, psyched them up and persuaded them that the so called Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army is the enemy, to be demonized and crushed at any cost."

In a subsequent Commonwealth Focus article, Ms. O'Callaghan further embellished her original story by writing, "In fact in the first six months of this year (1999), Short presided over a diabolical shift in how Solomon Islands dealt with its people.
"He has armed his force, psyched them up and persuaded them that the so-called Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army are the enemy, to be demonized and crushed at any cost," says one long standing observer of Solomon Island affairs. "This can only fuel the problem, not resolve it.

"It is an approach that has drawn the consternation of some within the Australian Government which funds a number of projects with the Solomon Islands Police Force -- a force not equipped in size, resources or training to deal with wide-scale guerrilla warfare," Ms. O'Callaghan concluded.

Ms. O'Callaghan's sources clearly had their information wrong and I have been at pains ever since leaving office to state the true facts in the many articles I have contributed to the Pacific Islands Report and to the media in the Solomons.
In one of these reports entitled - "A Failed State or a Politically Motivated Uprising in the Solomon Islands" dated July 30 2002, I drew attention to a report that I submitted to the then SIAC Government on November 27 1998. Quoting from part of that report, I said, "There is a political dimension to the whole situation (having outlined the rise in militancy and the aims of the militants) and this must be addressed in the shortest possible time frame if we are not to see growing militancy that could cause untold damage to national unity and inter island relations, let alone serious infringements of the criminal law.

There is a need for an effective and reliable, trustworthy police service capable of providing accurate and informed intelligence on which to base advice and action. The situation cannot be allowed to continue and the police service is coming under increased pressure to deal with the crime trends, let alone having to deal with politically motivated activities that seem to develop from misinformation and a lack of national unity and provincial loyalties. Despite the often lack of in-depth intelligence, this report must be taken with seriousness and looked at in the political context to avoid an escalation of the situation." Hardly the sentiments of a Commissioner bent on crushing anyone!

The reference Ms. O'Callaghan made about "consternation of some within the Australian Government," is hardly credible since I made it part of my duty to fully brief the Australian Government through the usual liaison links of every aspect of my policy and proposed action, including providing an assessment in the early months of 1999 of the worsening security threat.

I came under increasing pressure from prominent members of the public and from some within the ranks of the police force to issue the public with police weapons to protect themselves and their properties, but I refused all such requests for I fully realized the consequences of such actions. As the pressure mounted and the militancy intensified, against all advice I had given to the government and the regional authorities, based on intelligence reports and material gathered by a professional intelligence officer I recruited from overseas, I turned down a government approach to renew my contract. In my resignation letter to the Minister of Police (fully set out in my letter published the Pacific Islands Report, I said I was not prepared to command a police service by having to use arms in trying to control a situation political in nature.

When the question of re-arming certain units of the police was raised last year by Joses Tuhanuku in a letter to the Solomon Star, I commented. I am afraid that I cannot agree with Mr. Tuhanuku's opening arguments that the Solomon Islands Prime Minister, "appears to be deliberately misleading the people of the Solomon Islands in the arguments he is putting for re-armament of the police" The numerous, explicit, press releases from the Prime Minister's office has made the government's position on the rearmament issue quite clear. Whether the policy is acceptable to the people or not is quite a different matter. It is perhaps unfortunate, however, that the question of national sovereignty has become too often embroiled in the arguments raise

I am in no position to know whether a threat assessment has made it necessary for the SIPF's Close Protection Unit to be retrained and rearmed, but it is sensible for the personnel involved in the personal safety and security of the Prime Minister and the Governor General, to receive the widest possible training in a variety of skills, which might include close-quarters combat tactics, and protective driving. The CPU should be constantly identifying any areas requiring improvements and rectify them promptly, including staff development and strong operational excellence. If this has not been aided so far, which appears to have been implied, then RAMSI is in an excellent position to be of help.

The re-birth of the Solomon Islands following the wasted and tragic years of the ethnic conflict has brought the incumbent government head to head with many challenges not least of which is the need to balance issues such as facilitating the Solomons socio-economic remaking with the demands of law and order.

While the global security climate remains tense the Solomon Islands is fortunate that its isolation has kept it free of terrorism, but security can never be taken for granted and the SIPF must be prepared, vigilant and equipped for any outside threats and prepared, too, for the threats imposed by a society not yet fully reconciled, still unevenly developed, suffering from unemployment, over-urbanization and social liberalization.

Mr. Tuhanuku mentioned in his article the colonial era of policing when the RSIP was equipped only with batons and riot gear, including tear gas. He went on to explain how the Force had managed to maintain law and order throughout the nation quite successfully during the first 20 years of the post independence period. I, too, was proud to have served in several unarmed police forces before coming to the Solomon's where the impartiality and neutrality of the police were rated as strong characteristics.

I was never comfortable during my tenure as Police Commissioner (1997-1999) with the armed National Reconnaissance and Surveillance Force (NRSF), as much I acknowledge their good work done on the border in protection of Western and Choiseul Provinces. The training and support the NRSF received from both Australia and New Zealand out-stripped the support for the blue-uniformed officers of the Force, to the detriment, in my opinion, of policing programs aimed at fostering community partnerships. I did everything possible to correct this imbalance but there was not much scope for doing so in the aid schemes provided by our development partners at the time.

The "political situation" referred to by Mr. Tuhanuku involving the rebel militant group, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), found the NRSF constantly engaged, in rotation, on border protection duties. At the time there was a strict moratorium on recruitment and police numbers were well down on the authorized establishment. To meet the shortfall and to overcome the day-to-day operational requirements, I sought the recruitment of additional special constables and provided them with basic training.

When the home grown militants, the GRA, began their campaign of waging unprovoked attacks on the members of the Malaitan community resulting in serious criminal acts, involving, murder, arson, rape, robbery and assault, I formed the Rapid Response Unit under the command, initially, of a British Senior Superintendent recruited from the South African Police Service where he, like myself, had been involved in human rights educational training following the formation of an African National Congress (ANC) Government.

At my request this officer produced a comprehensive report for the introduction of less than lethal equipment to augment the basic riot equipment mentioned by Mr. Tuhanuku in order to meet the challenges posed by civil disturbances in Honiara which were then becoming more frequent. The equipment was never provided or the report acknowledged by the Government at the time.

I am on record, as demonstrating in the many articles that I have contributed to the Pacific Islands Report and to your newspaper, of having laid down strict orders for the use of arms during my time as Police Commissioner and having been saddened by the militant activities in the Solomons which led to the police, on occasions, having had to resort to arms in defence of their lives when ambushed while responding to incidents in the bush. I commented also on the fact that several police officers involved themselves with the militants on both sides and how this action had forever damaged the respect, neutrality and trust that had been seen as a legacy of the colonial style of policing.

The NRSF made up quite a sizable element of the RSIP and their "soldiering" duties made them quite unsuitable, in my view, to readily adapt to civilian policing tasks, in addition to which many of their members had joined to be "soldiers" and had never received the basic training of a blue-uniformed policeman. In addition to this, however, an officer serving on the border received quite a substantial "border allowance" and many officers were rather reluctant to undertake general police work when back home from the border.

The Rapid Response Unit I saw as something of a stop-gap to augment policing when the situation demanded, but it became an effective, capable unit and helped in resolving many civil disturbances in a peaceful manner.

The many acts of intimidation, threats and violent confrontation which followed the 2000 Coup and led to the intervention of RAMSI, apart from the illegal activities of the Malaita Eagle Force, were exacerbated by the handing over of weapons to ex-militants who were made special constables as part of the peace settlement agreement. A gross error and misjudgment in my view.

Re-building the nation and the lives of the people are serious challenges that need the support of everyone, the government, the community, the churches, the unions, the civic and business organizations and Solomon Islands close development partners and I very much hope that all will begin working closer together to resolve the problems that have arisen of late while being sensitive to each others concerns, not least on the need, or otherwise, for the long term general rearmament, training and empowerment of the SIPF.

My views on the possibility of re-arming the police remain much the same, and accord with the views of Sir Peter that if any rearming were to be done, then it would best if it was undertaken under the control and supervision of RAMSI.

I add major caveats, however, and that is until there is full reconciliation in the country and a proper settlement of the land tenure issues that still divide communities, and until the SIPF is considered accountable, capable and effectively supervised and managed, the question of re-arming the police should be kept pending.

These are purely personal views, but having tried to minimize the importation of arms and their use by the police, and in instances when my actions were unfairly criticized and advice ignored, or orders on the use of arms, willfully disobeyed, I would still urge some caution.

Yours sincerely,

Frank Short




Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter/article are those of Frank Short and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.

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