By Alexander Downer, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs

SYDNEY, Australia (The Australian, Jan. 8) - The disarray in Solomon Islands has been clearly highlighted by the awkwardness surrounding local rescue efforts following Cyclone Zoe - lack of a two-way radio link, lack of fuel, problems in getting the crew on the patrol boat.

Thankfully, the inhabitants of Tikopia survived the worst of the cyclone. But this disarray is yet another example of the difficulties that Solomon Islands faces, and would come as no surprise to regular readers of these pages, who are fortunate to be well served by Australia's only resident correspondent in Honiara, Mary-Louise O'Callaghan.

Another serious example of that country's problems was the intimidation and extortion carried out by police on the Government last month, which triggered the resignation of the finance minister. Before this there had been some, albeit small, steps forward, but clearly the practice of extortion affects not just security but the economy and the ability of government to deliver services.

I can honestly say that the situation in Solomon Islands is one of the most troublesome issues we face in our immediate region. It is of great concern to the Australian Government.

I was in Honiara again in December 2002 - I have been there five times in the past three years - to talk to government and community leaders, to encourage them to take resolute action to address the state of the country, and to examine how Australia might possibly do more to assist. I have increased our aid to Solomon Islands in response to needs in the country.

What can we do? What should we do? Do we have a "regional obligation"? If so, does it go beyond disaster relief, humanitarian aid and support for governance, to extend as far as direct intervention? And should Australians be flying in to run Solomon Islands?

These are the right questions to ask. At the emotional level, the instinctive reaction of many Australians would be unhesitating: We should help, and we should insert ourselves where local capacity is lacking. The answer is not clear-cut once one undertakes a sober examination of our national interests and our capacity to afford a more intrusive approach.

Australia is not about to recolonise the South Pacific, nor should it. These are independent sovereign countries, with their own constitutions, legal systems and seats in the UN. Sending in Australian troops to occupy Solomon Islands would be folly in the extreme. It would be widely resented in the Pacific region. It would be very difficult to justify to Australian taxpayers. And for how many years would such an occupation have to continue? And what would be the exit strategy?

The real show-stopper, however, is that it would not work - no matter how it was dressed up, whether as an Australian or a Commonwealth or a Pacific Islands Forum initiative. The fundamental problem is that foreigners do not have answers for the deep-seated problems afflicting Solomon Islands.

Ultimately the answers have to come from within. Solomon Islanders are conscious of what needs to be done. I know this because I have asked them. We have given them our advice, but we cannot fix it for them. At best our intervention would only delay the inevitable, which is that Solomon Islanders themselves have to come to grips with the challenges they face.

We can help and we are doing so, with some positive results. We directed international efforts to end the violent ethnic conflict, resulting in the Townsville Peace Agreement and deployment of the Australian-led International Peace Monitoring Team.

Our aid has almost trebled in the past four years, to $36 million. We help with immediate needs - I gave immediate approval to Solomon Islands' requests for supplies, vessel hire and surveillance flights in response to Cyclone Zoe.

At the same time we work to build the capacity of Solomon Islanders to help themselves - support for the police, government administration, health services and community peace and reconciliation activities.

We can continue to do these things effectively. The more we and other donors support the training of police in Honiara to carry out basic policing, assist Solomon Islanders rebuild schools and clinics, help women's groups and unemployed youth or help the Government provide Solomon Islanders in rural areas with health services, the better.

We are doing as much as we reasonably can, recognizing that there are limits to what outsiders can do. But the challenges are large and there are no quick fixes; change is going to take time. It will be a process of evolution, not a revolution. It will be a long, hard road, but it is the only way forward.

January 8, 2003

For additional reports from The Australian, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Australian. 

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