Australia’s little known other “intervention” of 2003 wasn’t in the Middle East with the world’s eyes watching, but an effort to prevent a state collapse closer to home.
In July 2003, barely four months after Australia committed to sending troops into Iraq as part of the US-led “coalition of the willing”, and two years after it committed troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, the Australian government also chose to intervene into its Pacific Ocean neighbour, Solomon Islands. Just three hours flight from the Queensland coast of north eastern Australia, and also in the context of the post 9/11 “war on terror”, the small island nation of Solomon Islands had collapsed into armed chaos, and fears that it would collapse further and create a failed state on Australia’s doorstep, was the impetus behind the government’s decision. There were also concerns over what came to be called an “arc of instability” to Australia’s north and northeast. While this intervention was markedly different to the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in numerous ways, it too has struggled with an end point and exit strategy, and it came with a hefty price tag.
Solomon Islands, is a country of almost 1,000 islands, and a population of less than 600,000, with most inhabitants on the two main islands of Malaita and Guadalcanal – the latter whose harbour was the site of a famous World War Two naval battle between US and Japanese forces, and a poignant reminder of the vulnerability of Australia’s northern flanks to strategic threats. The intervention in 2003 was Australia’s third intervention into a neighbouring country in seven years. In 1997, Australia had intervened into Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, and two years later, Australia led the UN-mandated intervention into East Timor, both to Australia’s north. The intervention into Solomon Islands, known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), drew from these previous regional interventions, although the backdrop was clearly the new security context of a mounting fear of transnational terrorism, sombrely made clear by the killing of 88 Australians in a terrorist attack in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002. In addition, both the think-tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and The Economist were forewarning of Solomon Islands becoming a failed state, which the Australian Prime Minister of the day, John Howard foresaw as enabling a “safe haven” for transnational criminals and terrorists.
However, unlike the heavy defence-focused wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, RAMSI had a number of distinctive components, and the context was quite dissimilar. First, in 1998, Solomon Islands had descended into economic collapse, chaos and armed conflict sparked, in part, by significant transmigration from the island of Malaita into the capital city of Honiara on the neighbouring island of Guadalcanal and fuelling ethnic tensions between Malaitans and Gualese. While the Solomon Islands casualty figures by 2003 were relatively low – particularly compared to the wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan – forced evictions, and a population-wide fear of armed militants, and the incapacity of the government to respond effectively, were significant in creating insecurity and instability. Particularly brutal militant activities emerged; murders, sexual assaults, criminality – including the looting of police weapons and police defections to militant groups – significant forced displacement, and widespread fear gripped the country.
Second, and quite distinctively, the government of Solomon Islands requested Australia to intervene; repeatedly it transpired, as the Australian government was quite reluctant to do so initially. The then Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, considered such actions to be “folly in the extreme”, yet, disregarding his Foreign Minister and policy advisors across government, Prime Minister Howard met with the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sir Allen Kamekeza in early June, and RAMSI was despatched within a matter of weeks on July 23rd.
Third, the mission was not military-led. It was civilian-led, headed by a senior Australian diplomat, Nick Warner, with a civilian contingent from across the Australian government, significantly police heavy from the federal Australian Federal Police, with defence support. The mission had tri-fold authority to restore law and justice, and to improve both economic governance and the machinery of government. The economic governance pillar was aimed at restoring government finances and promoting economic reform to generate growth. The machinery of government pillar was aimed at rebuilding core institutions of the state. The law and justice pillar was about removing looted firearms and enforcing strong penalties for the possession of firearms after an initial amnesty, and rebuilding the police, justice and corrections structures and systems.
Fourth, the mission had the blessing of the regional organisation, the Pacific Islands Forum. It also had significant support on the ground from a number of participating Pacific police forces.
RAMSI had bewildering early successes, particularly in the disarming and arrests of militants. Yet it was originally intended to last only a few months, with one garrison staying up to 12 months. On June 29, 2018, edging on the 15th birthday of RAMSI, the last Special Coordinator delivered the official speech of closing the RAMSI coordination. Although, the Australian and New Zealand bilateral police assistance programs will maintain a presence in the Solomon Islands. While it has whittled its contribution down to being a solely police-support mission, it still exists way beyond its anticipated purpose.
Significantly, it has also come at an estimated financial cost to Australia of at least $2.8 billion, the vast majority being expended on the law and justice pillar. The Solomon Islands became and remain the third largest recipient of Australian aid. Australia has paid a “substantial investment” for the operating costs of RAMSI, and continues to financially support the remaining rotating presence of civilians and police from 15 Pacific island countries.
There remains debate over the question of whether or not it was worth it, and defining what success looks like. With the exception of continued policing and defence support to Papua New Guinea, Australia has also not intervened in such a manner regionally since, although there have been no such similar social breakdowns in the region since either.