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Opinion: The Solomons - We Need to Know More

The Solomons - We Need to Know More

By Rohan G.H. Quinby

" I believe we must not allow the cynicism we see around us in international affairs to diminish the expectations and ethical behaviour we should demand of ourselves, and each other, as members of the global community."
- Phil Goff, 27 June

Although the intervention in the Solomon Islands has the blessing of the foreign minister for the Solomon Islands, Pacific Islands heads of state and the United Nations, there are some questions about the operation that remain unanswered. These questions concern the objectives of the forces being sent to the Solomon Islands.

Through press releases, media reports and speeches, the public is given the impression that the situation in the Solomon Islands is one of "lawlessness". Statements from foreign ministers describe the situation in the Solomons as one of criminality and corruption, where armed "elements" roam the streets and shoot up houses and offices.

If the above descriptions were the whole story, then perhaps the forces being considered for deployment to this nation of just over 480,000 could achieve the objective of restoring order. But if the unrest in the Solomons is more than roaming gangs of thugs with guns, then it is important for New Zealanders to question the aims of intervention. What kind of order will the proposed multilateral force restore?

Whether the Australian-led forces will be able to deliver a sustainable peace depends on the extent to which the leaders of the operation can see past their fears of failed states descending into havens of terrorism that directly threaten Australia’s interests. Unfortunately, the signs are not promising. After September 11 and the Bali bombing, Australia reconfigured its defence strategy to give greater emphasis on the stability of its immediate neighborhood. And while that is in itself a reasonable objective, statements from Alexander Downer, the Australian foreign minister, reveal that Canberra’s goal of regional stability could result in an intervention that establishes security at the price of justice.

The truth is that the lurid depictions of instability in the Solomons are only part of the story. The other part is about ethnic conflict, struggles for autonomy, debt and economic restructuring policies of the international community. If these issues are not addressed, then there can be no lasting settlement in the Solomons, and the intervention risks becoming an occupational force that will enforce a one-sided and ultimately unsustainable peace.

Any settlement will have to address the roots of the conflict between ethnic Gwale and Malatian peoples that have led to armed conflict by paramilitary forces on both sides. The fighting between the two groups led to the Townsville Peace Agreement of 2000, which established a process of reconciliation and disarmament. Rampant corruption and a lack of determination from the international community led to the breakdown of the peace process. So far, it is unclear how committed the planners of the international intervention are to working within the framework of the Townsville Agreement.

What is clear is that the economic collapse of the Solomon Islands has contributed to the nation’s instability. The island’s economy suffered a critical blow when exports of logs to Asia dried up. But a report prepared by the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific states that deforestation caused by logging led to soil erosion and devastation of surrounding coral reefs. The result was that agriculture and fishing was adversely affected.

In the wake of the crisis, the I.M.F. and the Asian Development Bank stepped in to maintain the country’s solvency. The price for the bail out was a structural adjustment program designed to liberalise the economy. Many public servants were laid off in an effort to trim government expenditure, and the resulting unemployment only contributed to the growing chaos.

Clearly, there is more to the solution of the Solomon Island crisis than a simple reestablishment of law and order through the use of military forces and police, as Mr. Downer has recently suggested. It will not be enough for Australia to secure its own substantial commercial interests on the island, nor will it be sufficient for the intervention to simply prevent unrest from spreading to nearby Bouganville, where Australia also has important commercial interests.

It is heartening that the proposed intervention has the agreement of the leaders of the Pacific Forum, and the nod from the United Nations. Clearly, there are times when intervention represents the kind of ethical behaviour that as Mr. Goff has suggested, is expected from members of the global community. But intervention is a complex game, as policy makers well know. It is important that the objectives of the intervention are spelled out clearly, with a view to the establishment of justice. From justice, peace and security will follow.


- Rohan G.H. Quinby maintains the Anti-podean Journal:

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