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Solomons Peacekeeping Raises Serious Issues

The government’s decision to intervene in the Solomon Islands is a project with real risks. I believe the public and Parliament should be fully informed of the dangers.

It is unfortunate that the Speaker turned down my request for Parliament to debate the issue. Clearly the Speaker is under the mistaken impression that the Solomon Island’s exercise is safe. It is not.

The decision to send unarmed defence personnel and police into the Solomons is a matter of real concern. The Prime Minister Helen Clark says correctly that unarmed army personnel have been a success on Bougainville. The situation is not comparable.

In Bougainville it was a dispute between Papua New Guinea and locals. With the withdrawal of the Papua New Guinea army the source of conflict also went away.

In the Solomons it is an ethnic conflict. There has been ethnic cleansing and killings, and the hatreds are long-standing. Unless the militias hand in their weapons it is very risky not to insist our troops be armed.

Parliament should be aware that the Australian-brokered peace agreement is the third peace agreement in the last two years. Despite peacekeepers from Vanuatu and Fiji, the previous agreements have failed.

It is correct to include police. The ethnic conflict has seen a breakdown in law and order. The local police have no arms and the criminals are armed.

The government has not explained how unarmed New Zealand police will be more successful than unarmed local police who have been powerless.

The government has not explained why the police are not carrying side arms.

We should remember that the unarmed police New Zealand sent to supervise the East Timor independence vote found themselves, after the vote, in very considerable peril. The police had to retreat to their compounds.

Parliament has not been told what the legal authority for the exercise is.

It is, at the moment, not under the United Nations, or even the Commonwealth. Will they be sworn as local police, and if so, what is the New Zealand government’s authority?

The government claims that all groups in Australia signed the peace agreement. At least one militia group refused to go to Australia.

The government should say what will happen if the various militias fail to disarm? Will our peacekeepers be withdrawn? If not, will they be armed?

I am concerned that the peacekeepers are under-resourced. ACT has received advice from defence experts stating that the minimum safe number of New Zealand troops is an infantry company of 120. The minimum number of police is 40.

The force will need to have a warship offshore and a Hercules on stand-by at the airport.

The events in the Solomons are a tragedy. It could be claimed, as the previous Solomon Islands Prime Minister has said, that the failure of Australia and New Zealand to respond to his requests for assistance has resulted in the failure of earlier efforts.

The international experience of peacekeeping is that countries who do intervene, should do so with all the resources required for success. They should also have an exit strategy.

New Zealand does not appear to have an exit strategy for East Timor. Parliament should ask before the peacekeepers go to the Solomons what are the objectives and what is the exit strategy.

Provided we know what the risks and potential costs are, I do support a well-resourced and properly equipped peacekeeping mission.

The Solomons will be the 14th peacekeeping force New Zealand is involved in. The army is being overstretched. Issues such as pay and personnel numbers do need to be faced. As these troops need air support and naval presence, the Solomon’s engagement raises serious questions about the present direction of defence capital expenditure.

These are important issues that the New Zealand Parliament should debate prior to any defence personnel or police being sent to the Solomons.

ENDS

N.B. The Hon Richard Prebble is married to a Solomon Islander. His wife is the former Solomon Island’s consul. He first visited the Solomons in 1976 and has made a number of visits since. Mr Prebble intends going to the Solomons himself next week to make an assessment of the situation.

For more information visit ACT online at http://www.act.org.nz or contact the ACT Parliamentary Office at act@parliament.govt.nz.


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