Private Column by Frank Short, CBE
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Monday, 29 April 2013 12:00 AM

Policing a Clash of Cultures Part 48: RAMSI - Taking Stock.

Extract from my memoirs.

In the last decade a much younger age group along with modern communications has steadily emerged moving onwards and upwards from the old traditions.

It has produced a different spirit amongst the Solomon Islands people. Call this ‘Tomorrow,’ as apart from ‘Yesterday.’

One now hears about the Forum Solomon Islands International (FSII) seeking permission from the Attorney General’s Office to pursue a judiciary case against the Parliamentary Entitlement Commission (PEC) – the government – over the massive hike in Parliamentary Allowances to retiring Members of Parliament.

More public discussion, also, about ‘extortion,’ pardon me – ‘compensation.’ Ah, but isn’t that the old word in today’s modern world?

Add the now awaited public audit of the millions of dollars ‘spent’ on the Festival of Pacific Arts in July of 2012.

Land ownership and rights, landing strip usage and much more.

We also have nature’s cycle – a changing climate, rising sea water, rainfall; those things that happen on an ongoing basis: add Island logging conditions, farming, crops, food production, health issues and more…


This information is filtering outward much more quickly today to encompass the young, upwardly mobile, Islanders; and the 80% of the people living in the outlying island villages. Agreed not everyone has a TV or social media source, but radio news is a main source of information.

And all this is up there on the Internet for the world to read about: including not just ‘Other People,’ but 'Wantoks' living overseas who then pass back the news to their families and friends by phone and mail.

One can sense that the past is becoming just that and Solomon Islanders can, hopefully, see a much brighter future for themselves.

Maybe, there is a lesson in the life cycle of the unexploded ordinance (UXO’s) still in the Solomons. In my last chapter I mentioned about how time had more or less dealt with the problem – yes, there are pro’s and con’s here… but aren’t there always in life?

An example here – a Guadalcanal Premier says one thing about RAMSI; a Coordinator for RAMSI has a different view over the likely state of militancy, mentioned a little later on: different people with different positions of responsibility and different political aims have different types of comment.

Over a decade ago we had right there on Guadalcanal, in clear view, a low-intensity civil war resulting in growing instability, lawlessness, insecurity and massive displacement of people.

Add the precarious state of the SIAC government and the statement made to me by Prime Minister Ulufa’alu that his administration would fall after I left the country.

Regional agencies and governments also saw the same thing. However, bureaucracies have their own pace historically and lone voices tend to have little or no effect on their movements -- until…

New York 2001 and the attack on the World Trade Centre -- an attention getter but a long way from home.

Bali Nightclub Bombing 2002 – right on the doorstep of the big man on the block.

Some eighty eight Australians, tragically, killed by terrorists. Looking at a map of the south Pacific it was an easy step to figure that countries that were branded as “failed or failing states” could quickly become springboards for terrorism. Hey – lots of little remote, unoccupied islands, with easy boat access… A ‘failing’ State holding a large inventory of modern firearms.

And then RAMSI arrived – along with millions of dollars, trained, military and police units, all were well equipped to put the proverbial lid on the boiling pot. Yes, I know I do use that metaphor more than I should: however it feels that way to me, so please let it be!

A reasonable background don’t you think for intervention? Especially since the majority of Islanders welcomed this presence which effectively brought much wanted stability to a normally peaceful nation in 2003.

The signing of the Townsville Peace Agreement (TPA) on 15 October 2000, had already shown that academic pieces of paper were just – wallpaper. The state was, in reality, incapable of implementing the terms of the TPA. All the more so after the folly of incorporating militants into the ranks of the RSIPF Special Constabulary.

Those in the right positions made haste to do their looting of any funds available –

Where does all these dollars go incidentally? Have I missed any enquiries? I do know that authorities in the UK, USA and other countries have recently been catching up with depositors putting their money in off-shore tax havens due to closer banking cooperation and computer usage.

Those who have followed my story so far know that it was made abundantly clear that I did give early advice to all parties based on sound intelligence and with a clear warning of the potential consequences of non action.

In a previous chapter of my memoirs it was also made clear that information passed to both the Solomon Islands and regional governments; along with on site involved advice could well have prevented the intensified civil war that occurred in the Islands after my departure.

Information was additionally provided on the precarious state of the SIAC government and the statement made to me by Prime Minister Ulufa’alu that his administration would fall after I left the country, as I mentioned earlier.

The economy was bad enough in 1997 but despite some success brought about by better fiscal management and structural reforms, the Island’s economy became under very serious threat due to the onset of militancy and the forced closure of major industries such as the Solomon Islands Plantations (SIPL) and the ceasing of operations at Gold Ridge Mine.

Surely, one must consider was this not sufficient evidence of a state heading towards anarchy and one needing immediate help from our closest regional partners.

We know by now that Australian intelligence agencies only monitored the insurgency taking place on Guadalcanal prior to 2000. In the face of 20,000 displaced persons, mainly Malaitans; the rushed evacuation of its own nationals and with growing evidence of an ‘arch of instability’ off its shores, it is difficult to comprehend why Australia did not help when requested by Prime Minister Ulufa’alu.

In his book 'Happy Isles in Crisis: The historical causes for a failing state in the Solomon Islands 1998-2004,' Clive Moore, an Australian academic, pulled no punches in condemning the Australian Government's responses to the Solomon's situation. He quotes Prime Minister Howards's speech in the Australian Parliament in April 2000 when he declined the appeal of Prime Minister Ulufa'alu to intervene. Moore said this was a major misjudgement of the seriousness of the situation.

My earlier appeals, too, had been declined and it is hardly surprising given all that I had accurately assessed and reported was ignored by Australian intelligence agencies.

Forgive the quick refresher here – it may save readers time and the frustration of ‘finding’ what I’m referring to. As I have outlined in a preceding chapter: if one examines the principles of International law as embodied in the United Nation’s Charter then it is clear on the use of force. Article 2 (4) provides: “All member states shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” The prohibition is supported by another Article 2 (7), which forbids intervention in matters that fall essentially within the “domestic jurisdiction.”

If, in 1999, Australia felt bound by the provisions quoted and the reason why intervention was declined, then what had changed to provide for the intervention of RAMSI in 2003, again a question that I posed before, but a vitally important one.

Well the Bali bombings happened, right on Australia's doorstep.

What is overlooked if one further explores the provisions of the UN Charter is the fact that there are the two exceptions to intervention which are (a) right of self-defence (Article.51) and (b) to maintain or restore international peace (see Articles. 39, 41 & 42).

The intervention by RAMSI was clearly not an act of self-defence and the presence of armed militants in the Solomon Islands did not pose a danger for an armed attack on Australia.

So, in a nutshell, what were the grounds for the late intervention of RAMSI?

It is argued that the presence of militants, terrorists if you will, were operating to destabilize the Solomons and its institutions and were regarded as a security threat.

It was further opined that both terrorism and transnational crime can span national boundaries and are multi-dimensional and organized in nature. Further, it was believed that criminal and terrorists regularly engage in strategic alliances to provide goods and services such as drug smuggling or arms or provide money laundering opportunities.

I had seen this before. The Strategic Review of the Solomon Islands handed over to the PM in April 1999, as detailed in an earlier chapter, had said much the same, so again, why was the reaction from the international community, and in particular from Australia, so slow to intervene?

Today, we see that the traditional view on sovereignty has changed and security issues no longer confined to national boundaries.

What was occurring in the Solomons in 1999 had the potential to harm the security interests of its neighbours and the law was already there to have aided the early failing state but nobody listened – and the consequences and costs are now plain for all to see.

What was needed was a short-term deployment of elite Australian military and police personnel with a transfer of vital assets. A determined show of force by tough, well trained and well equipped, Australian security forces could quite easily have ended the insurgency pretty quickly and allowed the RSIPF to render support in rearguard operations, combining arrests with weapons recovery.

If this had been done there would not have been any defection in the police ranks, or police weapons stolen. We would not have seen a MEF; the SIAC government would have continued and the prime minister allowed to press on with his reform policies which, prior to the insurgency, was allowing the Solomon's economy to recover.

In such circumstances, with a surrender of the GRA and IMF fighters and the recovery of illicit weapons, the chances of attaining the much needed political settlement of the national crisis could well have been reached.

Yes, intervention would have needed the Solomon Islands Government consent, although unlikely to have been refused, and a legal framework such as the subsequent Facilitation Act, but there was already a similar model in existence which provided for the intervention of Australian Police in Papua New Guinea. A solid legal framework for intervention could have been drafted. After all, the Facilitation of International Assistance Act 2003 (No.1 of 2003) was drawn up relatively quickly not in Honiara but in Canberra and Wellington. The Solomon Islands's Attorney General had very little input in the drafting process.

Undoubtedly, outside, donor aid would have been needed if such an early intervention had occurred to enable the country to get back on its feet, so to speak. Aid in the kind of assistance programmes that followed RAMSI's arrival, but at considerably less cost, and perhaps over a shorter time span.

Above all the national integrity of the Solomons would have been preserved, democracy intact and Australia a timely "Helpen Fren" indeed.

Alas....

One noted Australian blogger summed things up in a rather blunt way by writing –

“When the Commissioner, Frank Short, sought help from the AFP (Australian Federal Police) he was rebuffed and shown the door.

Historians agree that if the AFP had assisted Short he would have easily prevented the violence getting out of hand. The likelihood of violence was known for years before it erupted.

The AFP telling Short to "bugger-off" has cost the Australian taxpayer heaps.”

Another Australian correspondent wrote to me and said, “It was pretty clear that if you had been well resourced and remained beyond mid-1999 as Commissioner RSIP the MEF coup would have been easily headed off.

"I hope you make that point as it is clear to many in defence circles.

"Murray is blamed but Whiddett’s (Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police) mea culpa was too late.

“The AFP fellow Murray coveted the job of Commissioner and had been lobbying intensely for it.

“Since the coup Australia has spent several billions of dollars up there. Most to foreign ‘consultants’ with little going where it should.”

I have to comment, also, that since writing my memoirs I have received numerous similar remarks.

Has RAMSI been effective since it deployed in July 2003? It seems most commentators agree that it has, although not an unqualified success. During the early phase of its operations it successfully brought an end to the lawlessness in the Solomon Islands. It was able to achieve this, in part, through the use of amnesties and the recovery of more than 3,600 weapons and by arresting over 6,300, but not the so called “big fish” who seemingly, so far, have escaped justice.

There are numerous scholarly articles to read on the preventative tests of effectiveness of RAMSI and I need not dwell on them here, but a concern that needs to be made is the problem of a culture of dependency having occurred because more critical functions in the government and public service have not yet been entrusted to local personnel.

Here one might focus on the investigation and prosecution skills required of the police service. It has been claimed that RAMSI has not done nearly enough to train the members in readiness for a withdrawal of its advisers. The RSIPF, nowadays, largely comprises of young policemen and women with little service experience.

We see this in poorly prepared cases and evidence rejected by the courts leading to acquittals. We see it, also, in undetected cases involving allegations of corruption and misuse of assets and money. We read of police files being lost or misplaced and, worse, evidence being 'doctored.'

We read of delays in the investigation of cases and the consequential loss of material evidence and errors in the questioning of suspects and witnesses. Accused persons have rights too and the conduct of their investigations is guided by the principles enshrined in the 'Judges Rules.'

How many times have we read of cases being thrown out because accused persons have not been accorded their rights, particularly when having made statements, before being cautioned and charged?

It is undoubtedly true that the RSIPF is often handicapped by transport shortages and other logistics to investigate reported cases, but we live these days in a technological age.

The police service must be provided with the technological aids to maximize operations, including the supply of computers and software programmes for special investigations. Training must also be given to ensure police personnel become computer literate as quickly as possible.

The key aim must be to ensure the RSIPF has the necessary technological solutions and services to enhance the Force's operational capabilities.

With the growing sophistication of crime, including commercial crime, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) must have specialist skills training and be fully resourced with scientific capabilities for collating and analyzing evidence, including modern methods of fingerprint recording and classification.

The early success in rounding up and prosecuting key militants and politicians charged with corruption related offences, was driven my RAMSI investigators enabled with skills training, equipment and resources, including forensics, when needed.

What percentage of the existing establishment of the RSIPF can match the experience and skills of the remaining PPF personnel? Very few I would estimate. But what is currently being done to ensure RSIPF members will be able to cope when the plug is eventually pulled?

In the time that is left, RAMSI must ensure the focus is placed on ensuring the local police are continually equipping with new capacities to adjust and excel.

What, also, is being done to ensure the RSIPF will have all the necessary resources and assets, I have touched upon in part, to manage after the transition?

Already, there is debate that RAMSI’s assets will not be transferred because of the costs and because much of the equipment and transport is too old.

Parliament has been told by the Minister for Police and National Security, Chris Laore, that the government will work out the costs of buying new equipment and supplying the police in June 2013. As much as I respect what the Minister told Parliament, personally I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Already, many police posts throughout the country are in dire need of logistics, including vehicles, motorized canoes and effective communication equipment. Some police posts have neither vehicular transport or canoes.

The Strategic Review of the Solomon Islands, which I reported on earlier, placed much emphasis on effective measures for border control and border protection, but customs and immigration departments have still not been re-established on the common Papua New Guinea-Solomon Islands border. It seems, initially, to have been left to the provincial police commander in the Western Province to station a few of his personnel to the Kulitaghau police post to monitor movements across the border.

Key barrier operations should be shared with other relevant control agencies for effective cooperation and surveillance and government will need to pay much more attention to both barrier controls and coverage of the nation’s maritime approaches as RAMSI exits.

While in the law and justice sectors one has witnessed much improvement but RAMSI’s mandate fell short of addressing what is still seen as the root cause of the national ordeal and that remains land issues, complicated all the more by an absence of land registration and a true sense of a national identity.

The Special Coordinator of RAMSI, Nicholas Coppel, was reported to have said in December 2012, that militant activity was at an end. He had no sooner made his comments when the Guadalcanal Premier, Anthony Veke, lashed out and labelled Mr. Coppel’s claim, “a joke.”

Veke added, “The people of Guadalcanal are very unsettled. We’re of the view that if the land issue is not addressed, people will claim and resettle back on Guadalcanal lands which would destabilize peace in the future.”

He also said, “In fact the Guadalcanal people are still disappointed with the National Government for suspending the work of the Commission of Inquiry into Land dealings and abandoned properties on Guadalcanal. These are some of the root causes of the past conflict.”

The thorny issue of the “bona fide” demands clearly hasn’t gone away and what about the future problems outside the immediate responsibility of the police but likely to affect them in one way or another?

It is not too difficult to foresee some of the future problems the police will encounter that will bear on them directly or indirectly and which will change the social tensions in which they have to work. These will include unemployment, housing difficulties, inflation, climate change and also the trend to greater social freedoms and the relaxation of customs and morals.

The proposed change to a federal system of government in the Solomons, if adopted, will bring about more fragmentation to a society still suffering from a lack of unity and common purpose and one still not fully reconciled after the social tensions of the past.

One leans towards the view that a reconciled nation in which communities put the past behind them and trust each other again is a prerequisite for successful and lasting constitutional change.

I hear the polls show that a very large percentage of the Islander’s are satisfied overall with RAMSI's presence and are concerned about what will happen when the Mission leaves completely.

Australia, will surely have to reflect on the past patterns of its intervention and seriously consider its costs – past, present and future.

To be continued …

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