This year, 2016, is shaping up to be an exciting, busy and critical one for the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) and the Solomon Islands Government (SIG). RAMSI is preparing to transfer the final policing and national security responsibilities to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) before June 2017, while continuing to provide mentoring and guidance to police.
The fact that the Government and RAMSI are working towards this hand-over and RAMSI’s withdrawal in 18 months is testament to the strength of Solomon Islanders and the hard work of the RSIPF. It is a good news story.
It means that after twelve years both the SIG and RAMSI have confidence that Solomon Islands is ready to stand on its own.
This day has been coming for some years. With the support of successive Solomon Islands governments, RAMSI has been drawing down for over four years. At the same time, the RSIPF has been building a reputation as one of the best police forces in the region.
In 2013, RAMSI withdrew its military contingent and normalised development assistance, except for policing cooperation. This occurred because the SIG and RAMSI agreed that there had been significant security and economic improvements since 2003.
Today RAMSI is only a policing assistance mission. This tighter focus is still not widely understood. International support for institution building and economic reform has returned to bilateral development partners and, of course, primary responsibility rests – as it always has – with the SIG. RAMSI is no longer a key player in strengthening the justice and correctional sectors, national institutions and government ministries, nor supporting grassroots initiatives.
In terms of policing, RAMSI first took a deliberate step back from frontline duties in 2011 to focus on mentoring and capacity building. This was to give RSIPF officers the room to grow and learn – particularly, to become more accountable, responsible and independent.
Whenever there is an external intervention such as RAMSI it is inevitable that there will be a tension between leaving too soon and staying too long. RAMSI and the SIG are confident that the time for normalising policing and national security activities is near.
Over the last two years, particularly under the strong leadership of Commissioner Frank Prendergast, with support from the SIG, the RSIPF has developed from strength-to-strength. The RSIPF now trains other Pacific Island police forces in the region and is giving back to the neighbourhood through activities such as election monitoring in Vanuatu last month.
Solomon Islanders can be proud of the way the RSIPF maintains law and order and has handled major events such as the national election and floods in 2014 and the Melanesian Spearhead Group Leaders’ Summit in Honiara last year.
The last piece in the jigsaw is limited rearmament. RAMSI is helping the Government to implement its intention to rearm three specialist police units – namely, the Police Response Team, close personnel protection for VIPs such as the Prime Minister, and the airport security team. Arming these units will enable the Solomon Islands to meet its sovereign national security and law and order responsibilities without assistance from other countries. Community consultations last year confirmed that the vast majority of Solomon Islanders supported rearmament with appropriate training and safeguards.
While the RSIPF is ready to seize the reins, I am confident that the region will continue to help it sharpen its skills and capabilities to lead and serve in the community. The Solomon Islands, Australian and New Zealand governments are, for example, already considering follow-on programs of bilateral policing support when RAMSI departs.
The other more difficult and longer-term challenge, which the Government is working to address, is tackling the underlying causes of the tensions comprehensively and fairly. This must and has always been ultimately something for the people and leaders of the Solomon Islands to lead. RAMSI was a circuit breaker. It stopped the serious violence and the unravelling of the state. In doing so, it provided the time, space and stability to recover lost ground and to begin the healing and re-building process.
Today, Solomon Islanders walk safely in villages and towns, construction and infrastructure upgrades are evident across the nation, and business opportunities are there for entrepreneurs. RAMSI is very proud of the role it played in restoring law and order, removing weapons from communities, stabilising the economy and supporting government accountability.
My hope is the people of the Solomon Islands continue to take advantage of the peace and stability to reconcile, rehabilitate and re-energise the nation, comforted in the knowledge that the 15 Pacific Island Forum nations that contribute to RAMSI will always be willing to helpem fren – and will continue to support the RSIPF – long after RAMSI leaves.