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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 - 03/12/2007
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  • Howard, John Winston
Ministerial Statement to Parliament on the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI)

I move:

That this House:

1 endorses the government';s decision to deploy the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands; 2 expresses its support for the members of the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Protective Service, Australian Government officials, and personnel from Pacific Island nations who are deployed with the assistance mission; and 3 expresses its full confidence in the members of the assistance mission, and its hope for a successful mission and their safe return home.

Mr Speaker, today I wish to report to the House on the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

I am pleased to note at the outset that the mission has received overwhelming support from the people of the Solomon Islands and that cooperation among the various force elements from the Pacific Islands Forum nations has been close and effective.

It would, however, be premature to declare the problems solved. The work of the mission has only just begun. Risks remain and we know that the Solomon Islands will need the help and encouragement of its friends for some time to come.

Solomons sought Australia';s help

The Solomon Islands faces many obstacles to its development. It is geographically isolated and its small population base is fractured.

Even beyond the damage caused by the ethnic tensions that erupted in 1998, corruption has strangled many of the institutions vital to good governance, and violence has become endemic.

The Solomon Islands Government has recognised that it is unable to address its problems or, indeed, govern effectively – they know that if they do not stop the slide into chaos their nation will collapse. The Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Sir Allan Kemakeza wrote to me on 22 April providing a very frank assessment of the problems besetting the Solomon Islands and seeking our support. On 5 June, we met in Canberra to discuss the situation.

Given the long-standing strong ties between our nations and our peoples, it is no surprise the Solomon Islands should turn to Australia for assistance. Australia has provided support and aid to the Solomon Islands over many years. Many Australians have lived and worked there, building a reservoir of personal connections and engagement.

In response to earlier problems, we were instrumental in facilitating and supporting the conclusion and implementation by the Solomon Islanders of the Townsville Peace Agreement in 2000 and the subsequent International Peace Monitoring team, which helped to end inter-ethnic conflict.

But it is clear that despite these efforts, the problems facing the Solomon Islands have grown more serious. Criminal lawlessness has replaced ethnic tension. And most critically, some of the main culprits are in the police force. The country';s institutions have been greatly weakened and have, in some cases, turned against the people they are meant to serve. This has contributed to a severe economic decline, which in turn exacerbates the climate of political and social instability.

Over the last six years, per capita GDP has been halved, falling below US$500 in 2002. The Solomon Islands economy contracted by 14 per cent in 2000 and by another nine per cent in 2001.

Earlier this year, critical social welfare infrastructure had almost ceased to function. There were no funds for vital medicines and hospital supplies. Power generation was essentially crippled - unable to supply hospitals, schools or business. Lack of power has also affected the water supply, already seriously degraded by poor maintenance.

Those employed by the Solomon Islands Government to provide vital services have not been paid for months at a time. Many of them demonstrated great loyalty and compassion by continuing to work regardless of whether they were paid or not.

All the while a small group of criminals and militants have been looting the very future of the Solomons. They have terrorised the community - brought the nation to the very brink of collapse - and done a grave disservice to the reputation of the Solomon Islanders as a good and generous people.

Innocent villages have been brutalised as rival criminal gangs jostle for control. Over 1000 people have had to flee the Weathercoast to seek refuge in Honiara. Sir Alfred Soaki, the former police commissioner and National Peace Councillor was assassinated in February this year. Cabinet Minister Father Augustine Geve was killed in August last year.

Kidnapping, murder, rape and torture have gone unchecked. Police are unable or unwilling to investigate many of these crimes. There are too many examples of criminals evading arrest, charges or detention, protected by corrupt politicians, officials, police or prison guards.

In our interests to help

It is vital that we do all that we can to arrest this downward spiral, which, if not addressed, could result in the total collapse of the Solomon Islands'; governance and sovereignty.

The international community looks to Australia to play a leading role in the South Pacific. Our leadership of the regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands reflects both a national interest and an international expectation.

A failed state would not only devastate the lives of the peoples of the Solomons but could also pose a significant security risk for the whole region. Failed states can all too easily become safe-havens for transnational criminals and even terrorists. Poor governance and endemic corruption provide the conditions that support criminal activities.

If Australia wants security, we need to do all that we can to ensure that our region, our neighbourhood, is stable – that governance is strong and the rule of law is just.

That is why we have joined with the other nations of our region to lend a helping hand. Failure to act would have sent the wrong signal to those who are endeavouring to maintain stability in other parts of the Pacific.

On 25 June, the Australian Government decided to undertake a regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands provided there was a formal request, that necessary legislation was enacted to authorise the presence of external personnel, and that the initiative was supported by the Pacific Islands Forum.

This last requirement was met when the initiative was unanimously endorsed at the meeting of the Forum';s foreign ministers held in Sydney on 30 June.

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the important role played by the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Alexander Downer, and his Department throughout these consultations.

On 4 July, the Solomon Islands Governor-General, Sir John Lapli, acting on the advice of Prime Minister Kemakaza';s Cabinet, wrote to me formally requesting the assistance package.

On 11 July, the parliament of the Solomon Islands supported a motion endorsing the programme of strengthened assistance. On 17 July, it unanimously passed the enabling legislation giving powers and immunities to those police and military personnel engaged in the operation.

With all our conditions met, the Australian government agreed to deploy the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands on 22 July. The code name for the operation captures our aims and our intentions – the meaning is as clear in English as in Pidgin - Helpem Fren. The nations of the Pacific are coming together to reach out to a neighbour in need.

In addition to the Australian component, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Tonga, have contributed police and/or military personnel to the initiative. And it is possible that other Forum members will also contribute personnel to the Australian-led mission.

I was delighted that the Prime Ministers of New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga were able to join the Forum Chairman, Prime Minister Qarase of Fiji, myself and the Leader of the Opposition in Townsville on 24 July to farewell the police and troops leaving for Honiara.

Assistance Mission

The assistance mission is at this stage essentially a police-led operation designed to reintroduce law and order, and get guns and other weapons out of communities. Once the situation has stabilised, we can begin to implement the necessary governance and economic reforms and ensure that the Solomons has a firm foundation on which to build its future security and prosperity.

Of primary importance will be the work we undertake with the people of the Solomons to rebuild the police force, judicial institutions, correctional services and the other essential machinery of government.

Together we will work to stabilise the Solomons'; finances and ensure the delivery of basic government services.

The government has appointed Mr Nick Warner, a senior official from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as Special Coordinator to oversee and direct the assistance mission.

The policing component, some of whom have been sworn in as members of the local police force, are ably led by Assistant Commissioner Ben McDevitt from the Australian Federal Police, now Deputy Commissioner of the Solomon Islands'; police force. We expect the policing and guarding element to total some 325 officers, once the Pacific Island nations have confirmed their contribution. Colonel John Frewen, from the ADF';s second battalion, is leading a military component of some 1,800 personnel who are providing valuable support to the police.

The Australian contribution comprises approximately 1,500 defence personnel, 155 Federal police and 80 members of the Australian Protective Services as well as a small number of officials drawn from relevant government departments, including the Treasury, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Agency for International Development, the Attorney-General';s Department and the Department of Finance and Administration.

Mr Speaker, I want, on behalf of the Australian government and the Australian people, to record our respect and admiration for those currently serving with the mission in the Solomon Islands. I wish to assure them that they carry the very strong support and the good wishes of the Australian community.

Our military and policing forces are held in high esteem internationally for their courage and for their professionalism – our nation is rightly proud of them.

I have absolute confidence that they will behave with the appropriate restraint and proper respect for the attitudes and culture of the people of the Solomon Islands.

But we are also mindful that any mission involves an element of danger. We take comfort from the knowledge that they are superbly trained, well led and have been welcomed by the people of the Solomons. Our thoughts will be with them until they return, safe and sound.

I wish also to thank the families of those deployed. We know that the greatest burden of anxiety and loneliness is carried by those who wait at home. We will endeavour to provide them with support and encouragement while their loved ones are away.

As I have said, the mission is essentially a police operation. The bulk of the military personnel are providing them with important logistical support. There is an active force protection element.

I do not expect that the combat element will need to remain in the Solomon Islands very long, although it is too early to put a precise timeframe on their departure.

The government hopes that there will be no need to resort to the use of force. But we need to be confident that our police contingent is adequately protected and that our military personnel could protect themselves and innocent civilians should it be necessary to do so. Recognising this, the parliament of the Solomon Islands has passed legislation to allow members of the assistance mission to use such force as is necessary to protect themselves, protect other persons or property, and to achieve the purposes of the mission.

Our immediate goal is to stop the violence so that the people of the Solomons can rebuild their lives and their institutions. The message is clear and I believe it has been heard – the time for guns is over. The people of the Solomons want the threat of illegal firearms permanently and unambiguously removed from their community.

Mr Speaker I am pleased to be able to report to the House that since 24 July around 1,000 weapons have been handed in to, or secured by, the assistance force.

The Foreign Minister, with his New Zealand counterpart, the Hon Phil Goff, visited the Solomons at the end of July to gauge the progress of the assistance operation and discuss the next stages with Solomon Islands leaders. He advises me that the mission has got off to a very good start. Impressive progress has been made.

Ordinary people are feeling more confident about their future and that of their nation. But there are still some major challenges ahead. Beyond retrieving the large number of illegal weapons still outstanding, there is the enormous challenge of rebuilding the economy and healing the ethnic divisions which have factured the nation.

Long term Commitment - to the Solomons

Our commitment in the Solomon Islands signals an important change to Australia';s policy.

Australia respects the sovereignty of its neighbours. Direct intervention, even by a friendly multilateral force, should always be a last resort.

Over the past years, we have made every effort to assist the people of the Solomons manage their own affairs. The descent into lawlessness over recent months finally became acute. The Solomon Islanders and ourselves both recognised that criminal gangs and corrupt individuals had taken control of their future. Their very existence as a community, as a nation, had been placed in peril.

In these circumstances we jointly concluded that intervention was not only appropriate, but necessary.

Regardless of the means, the objective has remained consistent – to return control of their own affairs to the people of the Solomon Islands.

And it is indicative of the Pacific way, that so many countries have joined together to help the Solomons. The multi-national force is not only symbolic of that special spirit of cooperation but also a demonstration of what is achievable when there is unity of purpose.

We need to work with other nations to ensure collective stability and sometimes we will need to join or form coalitions that are able to respond to requests for direct assistance. Common goals, shared information, mutual support and collective approaches are the most practical ways of securing our region. It is the only way to counter the activities of organised criminal networks.

Mr Speaker, I believe that the Solomons mission is important, not just for the future of the Solomon Islands, but because it is sending a strong signal throughout our region that the island nations are not alone. If it is required, help is at hand.

Australia, for one, has clearly expressed a willingness to help all the nations of the Pacific so that their people can experience the benefits which a properly functioning system of law and order provides – so that they too can enjoy peace and stability and be able to look to the future with confidence.

The government envisages that Australia';s contribution to the Solomons assistance mission – Helpem Fren - will cost over $200 million this financial year. The final cost will, of course, depend on the length and nature of the operation. While we envisage that the military component will draw-down as soon as a secure environment is established, the Australian Federal Police, aid officials and economic advisers may be engaged for several years. This will be costly, but it is a cost which I believe Australians would wish our country to bear.

It is also a burden which we will be looking to bear side-by-side with others in the international community.

Long-term commitment - to the Region

The situation in the Solomon Islands is unique but a number of our friends in the Pacific are experiencing economic decline, growing corruption and lawlessness. Development assistance has an important role to play in restoring stability to the Pacific. But we now understand that aid can only ever be a part of the solution. We must use our aid programme to encourage and strengthen good governance. The future stability and prosperity of the South Pacific depends on achieving higher standards of governance.

We want our neighbours to know that Australia is willing to help – to do our fair share, in a careful, deliberate, cooperative and neighbourly way. But they must also understand that this assistance cannot be a substitute for proper governance and careful stewardship of their own nations.

Mr Speaker, we have made it plain – nations who look for our assistance, who receive our financial aid, must understand support is now conditional on working to overcome corruption. Because unless corruption is rooted out and the institutions of good governance strengthened aid will make little difference.

The government recognises the special challenges confronting the island states of the Pacific. Through the framework of the Pacific Islands Forum we have begun to discuss innovative and creative ways to respond to these challenges. Increasingly, we are discussing the possibility of dealing with governance issues and institutional capacity building on a regional basis.

The Australian Government believes there may be some scope for pooling aspects of regional governance.

Obviously this would have the greatest application where there are common needs, common interests and common benefits and where pooling can provide the necessary critical mass or economies of scale.

I look forward to exploring these possibilities during the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Auckland at the end of this week.

With this regional assistance mission to the Solomon Islands, Australia has signalled it is willing, in a cooperative and collegiate way, to play a supportive, stabilising, and, if it is required, more interventionist role in the region. We will not let our friends down. We are committed to working with our fellow members of the Pacific Islands Forum to address the challenges of the region and to demonstrate what it means to be a good neighbour.