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Repeating history? Australia’s new intervention in Solomon Islands

Posted By and on November 29, 2021 @ 12:15

Karl Marx claimed, ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce’, suggesting that failing to learn from experience tells something about those in power. At the first repeat, all the ensuing misfortunes are tragic because they were avoidable. The second repeat reveals inexcusable incompetence.

We are currently witnessing a case of history repeating itself with almost carbon-copy exactness in Solomon Islands today.

Rewinding to Honiara in June 2000, we find civil unrest paralysing the capital, with rioting causing deaths and the destruction of property. At the political level, the rioters’ key demand was that the prime minister resign.

The root cause was ethnic division between the large population of people from the island of Malaita who had moved to Guadalcanal (where Honiara sits) and the people of Guadalcanal who feared dispossession from their ancestral lands.

The Malaita Eagle Force, an armed militia created to protect Honiara’s Malaitans from the Isatabu Freedom Movement, a Guadalcanalese militia that had embarked on an 18-month campaign to expel the Malaitans.

Despite the deaths, destruction and repeated requests [1] from Solomon Islands Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa’alu for police assistance to restore order, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer demurred, arguing it was an internal affair.

In June 2000, Ulufa’alu was forced to resign after being held under armed guard by the Malaita Eagle Force. Ironically, as a result of the coup, the current prime minister, Mannaseh Sogavare, was raised from leader of the opposition to the prime ministership.

One might simplistically draw the conclusion that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had learned the lesson of history. Sogavare asked for help and within a day Morrison responded with Australian assistance.

However, this assessment only takes into account the point in history when the crisis has reached a peak.

In order to avoid Marx’s tragedy of history repeating itself, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) proposed a means to deflate a crisis before it exploded. Meeting in Kiribati in October 2000, the PIF leaders drafted the Biketawa Declaration [2] to pre-emptively deal with threats to democracy such as the coups that that had occurred in Fiji and the Solomons earlier that year.

Given the similarities between the contemporary circumstances in the Solomons and those of 2000, it might be asked why Biketawa has not been used to deal with precisely the situation it was created to meet.

Frankly, it’s a good question.

For those with passing familiarity with Biketawa, the answer could be the need for a rapid response in a time of crisis. Certainly, the 2017 security treaty between Australia and Solomon Islands was the faster way of delivering police support.

The Biketawa process requires more time to activate. The secretary general of the PIF consults with the chair and, if they deem it warranted, they set up a ministerial action group, an eminent persons’ group or some form of mediation process.

Clearly, this is a ponderous process not built for speed.

The speed of the Australian response in today’s case is unique. Australia has no similar agreement with any other state in the Pacific, so this model is unavailable for use elsewhere.

The bilateral treaty itself is directly a consequence of the Biketawa Declaration.

The declaration’s processes enabled the 2003 establishment of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI, to deal the escalating civil strife that followed from the 2000 coup. Some 14 years later, the bilateral security agreement [3] was concluded as part of the steps to provide for post-RAMSI security.

A critical weakness with the Biketawa process isn’t necessarily that it’s slow but rather that it requires action early enough avoid a physical crisis.

A potential threat to security in the Solomons has been recognised [4] for well over a year, so there should have been time to set in motion the Biketawa conciliation arrangements.

Travel restrictions due to Covid-19 and a serious internal dispute [5] made it difficult for the PIF to take a proactive role to initiate a regional action to calm the situation.

Equally, had Sogavare sought to activate the Biketawa process, the PIF would have found it difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to respond affirmatively for the same reasons.

The bilateral security treaty has allowed a quick response, but it gives Australia more ownership of the local security and political problems in the Solomons than Australia wants.

Morrison partially acknowledged this when he asserted [6] that Australia is not in the Solomons to prop up the Sogavare government. In addition, he has sought support [7] for the Australian intervention from Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.

Yet already there are local concerns that the intervention is buying Sogavare time to get on top of his political problems and hold together a coalition that some have defected [8] from.

The opportunity to use the Biketawa Declaration pre-emptively is now well and truly gone, but it’s not too late to use the regional crisis management mechanism it provides as well as a regionally sanctioned exit strategy.

The billions [9] spent on RAMSI bought peace and stability for a time but did not solve [10] the underlying problems that have festered in Solomon Islands since 1999.

The current armed intervention has been enabled by a post-RAMSI insurance policy that was taken out precisely because there was a lack of confidence that 14 years of constructive occupation had achieved its objective of national reconstruction and reconciliation.

Fixating on China or Taiwan as the cause of the current crisis is blame-shifting in an unworthy attempt to avoid accepting that the root causes of the problems in the Solomons are local.

Some external factors may be being exploited by local political interests. But they will be better dealt with by resolving the internal tensions that seek to draw these external influences into decades-old domestic antagonisms.

Re-engaging with Biketawa offers one way of bringing Australia’s ‘Pacific family’ into an exit policy that involves all sides of Solomons politics and society in trying once again to find an agreeable long-term solution to the crisis.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/repeating-history-australias-new-intervention-in-solomon-islands/

URLs in this post:

[1] repeated requests: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/789414.stm

[2] Biketawa Declaration: https://www.forumsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/BIKETAWA-Declaration.pdf

[3] bilateral security agreement: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/dfat/treaties/ATS/2018/14.html

[4] recognised: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/could-covid-19-micro-nationalism-and-china-cause-solomon-islands-to-split/

[5] internal dispute: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/20475292/micronesia-presidents-communique-february-2021.pdf

[6] asserted: https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/australian-troops-police-on-way-to-restore-peace-in-solomon-islands-20211125-p59c94

[7] support: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-28/scott-morrison-afp-peacekeepers-solomon-islands-honiara-looting/100656874

[8] defected: https://theislandsun.com.sb/sogavare-loses-two/

[9] billions: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/saving-solomon-islands-crocodiles-14-years-ramsi/

[10] did not solve: https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/uncertainty-after-ramsi/

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