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Operation Helpem Fren: Biketawa's First Success

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Speaker: Nick Warner

Pacific Islands Forum Regional Security Committee Meeting in Nadi - Fiji

A few weeks ago I visited a village south of Auki, on Malaita, to talk to the villagers about the work of RAMSI. We had with us a young ni-Vanuatu police officer, Glen Mahina. Glen spoke Solomon Islands pidgin perfectly and had been given responsibility by the RAMSI Police Inspector in Auki police station to improve community relations through regular village awareness meetings. Glen was able not only to communicate effectively to the villagers in pidgin but was able to reach them on another level by explaining our messages in terms that were relevant to the grass roots. He drew on analogies and symbolism that I would not have thought to use but which came naturally to him, and which resonated with the community.

Last week I went to Munda in Western Province to record a session of the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Commission's program, "Talking Truth", as part of a larger initiative – a Crime Prevention weekend in Munda. A Munda resident asked RAMSI Police Commander, Ben McDevitt, if he could bring back a Fijian Police Officer who had been posted in Munda a few months ago, and the crowd all excitedly clapped their agreement. This police officer was clearly very popular and had left a lasting impression on the local people.

These are both examples - just two from many hundreds - of the invaluable contribution being made by Pacific Island countries to Operation Helpem Fren. Police and military personnel from Fiji, PNG, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Nauru, Cook Islands – and Australia - are deployed across Solomon Islands, assisting to maintain law and order throughout the country, protecting the people of Solomon Islands, and passing skills on to Solomon Islands police.

I often describe Operation Helpem Fren as a "unique and complex operation"; unique because it came about as the result of an invitation from a democratically elected government, because it has a major focus on police work, because it has regional endorsement and participation; and complex because of the mission's mandate to not only restore law and order but to rebuild the nation of Solomon Islands.

The United Nations Security Council, in August last year, welcomed the collective action of the countries of the Pacific Islands Forum to support the people of Solomon Islands in their quest for the restoration of law and order and stability. The mission has since received more praise and attracted interest from the United Nations and from other quarters. The Pacific Islands Forum can rightly be proud of our initiative to bring stability to Solomon Islands.

When Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza met the Australian Prime Minister John Howard in June 2003 to discuss the possibility of external intervention, he represented a nation held hostage by fear and intimidation, and unable to find a way out of a desperate situation.

Forum Foreign Minsters, meeting in Sydney on 30 June last year, agreed that the extent of the problems facing Solomon Islands called for a concerted regional response, as envisaged in the Biketawa Declaration, and endorsed the provision of a package of strengthened assistance to Solomon Islands, including a policing operation to restore law and order, supported, as required, by armed peace-keepers, and a program of assistance to strengthen the justice system and restore the economy and basic services. This package would be implemented by an unprecedented cooperative effort that became known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.

So RAMSI received the full support of the Pacific Islands Forum. The operation was named "Operation Helpem Fren" to reflect its true nature: the Regional Assistance Mission was invited to Solomon Islands to help a friend in the region steer its way out of a dangerous storm and choppy seas and to sail to calmer waters.

In true Pacific style, RAMSI has been engaged in a partnership with the Government, Parliament and the people of Solomon Islands since the beginning of Operation Helpem Fren. Decisions are taken together, after discussion. We have worked hard to keep Solomon Islanders informed about RAMSI activities and plans, building consensus, bringing Solomon Islanders along on each step of the operation.

Operation Helpem Fren, in its first vital stage, was police-led, with the military playing a support role, providing protection and logistical assistance, but also helping to build an environment of compliance.

RAMSI's highest priority was the re-establishment of law and order in Honiara. I am happy to say that we were able to achieve this very quickly.

A nationwide three week gun amnesty resulted in the collection of more than 3,700 guns, including 700 high-powered, military-style weapons. These weapons have been destroyed, and people are now confident to go about their normal business in Guadalcanal and Malaita, where guns had caused so many problems.

The peaceful surrender of Weathercoast militant leader, Harold Keke, was a critical development. Keke's arrest, imprisonment and ongoing court appearances helped win public confidence in RAMSI and put an end to excuses for holding on to weapons. Over 50 former militants have been arrested by RAMSI police and charged for crimes such as murder, abduction, rape and robbery. These arrests helped remove the prevailing climate of fear that had held back development in Solomon Islands for so long.

The clean up of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force has been an important achievement for RAMSI. Since 24 July 2003, 65 RSIP members, including two Deputy Commissioners, have been arrested and over 400 have been sacked. The RSIP was disarmed and the infamous STAR Division was disbanded. Systems for disciplinary action have been re-instated and proper merit-based and transparent systems of recruitment have been instituted.

While RAMSI police and military were busy establishing law and order, the civilian, nation-building component of RAMSI had set about stabilising government finances and helping the justice sector function better.

A team of 16 advisers and in-line personnel from the Australian Department of Finance and Treasury were placed in the Ministry of Finance within days of RAMSI's arrival in Solomon Islands. This team assisted to stabilise the budget so that revenue was properly collected, expenditure was controlled, public servants were paid, and provincial governments received their regular grants. They also prepared the budget for the last quarter of last year and for 2004. It was vital to the recovery of Solomon Islands that a credible and affordable budget be prepared and passed by Parliament so that the Government could deliver critical health and education services to the people.

RAMSI placed personnel throughout the justice sector to assist the courts, the Public Prosecutor and the Public Solicitor cope with their enormous caseload and to ensure those arrested by RAMSI police had access to legal representation. RAMSI also assisted to complete the refurbishment of Rove prison and provided prison services personnel.

RAMSI's 2004 agenda

As Prime Minister Howard said in December last year during a visit to Honiara, "RAMSI will remain until the job is done". And while we have made extraordinary progress, the job is not yet done.

RAMSI's focus in 2004 is on nation-building; assisting the Solomon Islands Government to implement long-term reform. Our priorities are to:

  • Build on the improved law and order situation by rebuilding the RSIP and justice system.
  • Rebuild the shattered Solomon Islands economy through fundamental economic reform to improve business conditions and encourage investment, jobs and income earning opportunities.
  • Review and reform the machinery of government to ensure the public service delivers services to the people and operates free of corruption and mismanagement.
  • Strengthen and improve the functioning of the accountability and transparency institutions in order to address and prevent future corruption.

The nation-building component of RAMSI now consists of about 80 civilian personnel. Their role is to repair the damage done to the essential machinery of government over recent years. In addition to the personnel working in the Ministry of Finance and in the justice sector that I have already mentioned, s everal advisers have been deployed specifically to support improved government systems. These advisers are assisting with public service recruitment, improving communication between Permanent Secretaries, and increasing awareness of legal and administrative procedures.

RAMSI and the Government are in the process of establishing an Economic Reform Unit within the Ministry of Finance and Planning, which will promote and implement key economic reforms to stimulate economic development in Solomon Islands. The Unit will be staffed by Australians, a New Zealander, and Solomon Islanders. We are working to recruit a Pacific Islander to work in the Unit.

RAMSI is looking to attract more Pacific Islands participation in our efforts to help Solomon Islanders improve the machinery of government, encourage economic reform and prevent corruption. The regional cooperation within the police and military elements of RAMSI has been such a success that I think it important we replicate that on the nation-building side of the house.

I would like to note here that there are a number of very good Solomon Islands public servants and police officers who have maintained their professionalism through the last few difficult years. They are playing an important role in rebuilding their country. We are working closely with them.

RAMSI is conducting an ongoing dialogue with the Solomon Islands Government and civil society, including Transparency International, about ways to address the huge problem of corruption in Solomon Islands and improve the operations of the accountability institutions.

RAMSI police are now taking more of a support role to the RSIP with the local force receiving training and development and taking a more active leading role in operational activity. RAMSI has completed a strategic review of the RSIP that is being considered by the Solomon Islands Government. From 2005 RAMSI police will be focused on identification, training and development of RSIP champions who will then take over the key roles and positions to lead an effective RSIP into the future.

RAMSI's Participating Police Force is currently made up of 146 Australian Federal Police, 55 Australian Protective Services officers, 35 New Zealand Police, 15 police from Fiji, 12 from Vanuatu, 12 from Tonga, 10 from Samoa, 5 from Kiribati, 4 from Nauru and 2 from Cook Islands. The majority of police are employed in General Duties and Community Policing in Honiara and in the 16 RAMSI Police outposts throughout Solomon Islands. Pacific Islands police are also working in areas such as Professional Standards, Investigations, Communications and Strategic Planning.

As the potential threat to RAMSI personnel declines, we are gradually drawing down the military presence in Solomon Islands. From a peak of 1700 personnel, military numbers have fallen to 650. The logistic support elements of the RAMSI military are also being gradually drawn down as commercial arrangements are put in place.

Military forces from Australia, New Zealand, PNG, Fiji and Tonga make up the RAMSI Response Force company (otherwise known as RESFOR). RESFOR is comprised of about 30 troops from each country who provide local security at both the police and military bases in Honiara; a quick reaction force; and protection of RAMSI police outposts in Malaita.

So why has RAMSI been successful?

RAMSI has been a success because it was the right plan at the right time and we had the right team with the right approach with the right level of political backing, both from Solomon Islands and the countries of the Pacific.

The full backing of the Pacific Islands Forum was vital to our success. Without the strong support and involvement of the countries of the region RAMSI would not have had the success it has had, nor would it have come with and retained the overwhelming support of the people of Solomon Islands. I would like today to pay special tribute to the men and women of the Pacific Islands police and military forces, and to my Fijian colleague, Sekove Naqiolevu, who have served RAMSI with such professionalism and distinction.

Operation Helpem Fren has clearly proved the value of the Biketawa Declaration. The success of the operation is a tribute to the willingness of Forum members to unite to resolve a crisis in a member state and demonstrates that significant progress can be achieved when we are united. This is the first time the countries of the region have worked together on such a large and multi-faceted mission. We have learned much from our experience and have established valuable networks and links across all contributing countries. The lessons learned and experience gained from Operation Helpem Fren stand the Forum in good stead to respond to any regional emergencies in the future.

Law and order has returned to Solomon Islands, but the situation is not yet one from which RAMSI could walk away tomorrow and feel confident that all that we have achieved would remain in place. A number of challenges lie ahead and we expect some opposition from those who stand to lose from reform and improved governance. Pacific Islands Forum members should feel justly proud of Operation Helpem Fren but cannot afford to believe that all the problems of Solomon Islands have been fixed. The region needs to stay focused and engaged in the nation-building and reform efforts in Solomon Islands, to ensure that the troubles of the past few years do not resurface.

The Pacific Islands Forum should be commended for its valuable contribution to and strong support for the Regional Assistance Mission's efforts in Solomon Islands. I would like to see the Forum continue their strong involvement to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for Solomon Islands and for the region.

Nick Warner
Special Coordinator
Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands
17 June 2004

Last Updated: 19 September 2014
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