Page last updated at 01:42 GMT, Monday, 23 February 2009

Solomons force fit to keep the peace?

By Ben Lowings
BBC News, Honiara

A parliamentary panel in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, is debating the future of an Australian-led peacekeeping force. The UN has praised it as a model of regional intervention - but is its work now done?

The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is not one of the world's best-known peacekeeping forces.

Heavily armed rebels in a jungle camp near Honiara, Solomon Islands (June 2000)
Tensions between rival ethnic groups were central to the Solomons conflict

But the story of how peace has been built here, in this former British protectorate, is largely a story of success.

Fifteen Pacific countries responded to a neighbour in need, and an intervention force of only about 500 foreigners has led to major changes in this nation of 500,000 people.

In the late 1990s, rival militias tried to take advantage of ethnic tensions in order to secure greater political power.

Scores of people were killed. The violence was fuelled in part by the problems created by the resettlement of ethnic Malaitans on the main island of Guadalcanal.

In July 2003, the Solomons government got the intervention force it had asked for.

My local counterpart's advice was to sit back for the first couple of months and learn - learn who the people are, learn the culture, the language
Australian officer Grant Beatty

Villagers on the outer island of Malaita remember how things used to be, and how they've changed.

"People were afraid of the gun," one boy says. "Some of the people that came into our islands, they held guns and they shot around, and people were afraid."

In the same hut, another boy tells me that villagers no longer had to put up with this after the arrival of the peacekeepers.

Weapons held by ethnic militias - and rogue police officers - were taken by RAMSI.

Firearms were sawn up and buried in concrete near the police headquarters in the capital, Honiara.

Squalid living

Bringing law and order to the Solomon Islands was hard enough for the local police force. So how did the Australian officers cope?

Australian policeman Grant Beatty works as an advisor on the island of Malaita. When he first arrived, he was taking advice himself.

Houses in the Solomon Islands (file photo: 2006)
Housing is a concern to Solomons police as well as locals
"My local counterpart's advice," he says, "was to sit back for the first couple of months and learn - learn who the people are, learn the culture, and pick up the language."

It was important to see how the local force was working before he could start making changes.

The foreign advisers have a well-provisioned house on the fringe of Malaita's main town, Auki.

But the Royal Solomon Islands Police live in poor sanitary conditions at the station, with quarters for married officers next to a rubbish tip.

In spite of notices on the walls, townspeople wander through the station, taking drinking water as they please. The toilets serve as a public convenience.

An Australian officer says that during the ethnic unrest, militants would regularly drive past Auki station and spray bullets into the facade.

It still looks pretty dilapidated. When I visited, only one patrol truck was working.

A drive round the island to arrest a suspect, or take them to court, might take a whole day. The roads are especially bad during the rains.

We hope to maintain the advisory role... so we can make sure that the RSIP are doing what they should in order to maintain the consistency in policing
Denis McDermott
RAMSI Participating Police Force

In Honiara, watch-house facilities at the central station leave much to be desired. When I was shown police cells there, suspects were sleeping on the floor near unclean toilets.

Prime Minister Derek Sikua says his government simply needs more money to upgrade police facilities.

"The whole issue here," he says, "is to bring back the morale of the Royal Solomon Islands Police force.

"One of the things that affects morale is housing. That is where government is focusing its resources, along with other donor partners like New Zealand and Australia."

Dr Sikua mentions upgrades for police vehicles and uniforms, as well as accommodation outside the main centres. It's not clear whether donors will supply the extra cash.

Winning trust

Australian and New Zealand soldiers have only been mobilised a couple of times in the past five years.

A RAMSI officer talks to locals (Copyright: RAMSI)
RAMSI is widely credited with restoring law and order in the Solomons
Reinforcements were sent into Honiara when riots broke out after the election in 2006.

Public anger was directed at businesses owned by Taiwanese people. They were accused of trying to influence MPs in their choice of prime minister.

The armed contingent of the peacekeeping force is to shrink in the coming months. RAMSI hopes that its lengthy training programme will enable the locals to "stand up".

Australian Denis McDermott is head of the peacekeeping police. He says the Solomon Islands police still need foreign help.

"We hope to maintain the level of policing, the advisory role," he says. "It's so we can make sure that the RSIP are doing what they should do, in order to maintain the consistency in policing."

Mr McDermott says it is crucial that within the coming years the RSIP have credibility with the local population. He describes this task as "really hard for the community to accept".

"They're very unforgiving people of the past, but they need to learn to move on."

The warlords have been captured, and brought to justice. But ethnic mistrust remains.

Australia and its neighbouring island countries only want to leave the Solomons in the hands of a trusted, professional police service.

Solomon Islanders know that when the peacekeepers go, their own police will be their only protectors, once again.

Five years on, it's not clear whether the Solomon Islands police are ready.

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