The RAMSI Decade: A Review Of The Regional Assistance Mission To Solomon Islands, 2003-­2013

By Jon Fraenkel, Joni Madraiwiwi & Henry Okole
14 July 2014

Executive Summary [Download full report here]

This report offers an assessment of RAMSI and its impact on Solomon Islands over 2003-­13. We believe that it is essential both to comprehend RAMSI in the local political context, and to analyse the mission in international comparison. This leads us to examine the architecture of RAMSI in a way that differs from most other reports on the 10-­year mission.

This is an independent report commissioned by the Solomon Islands Government and the Pacific Islands Forum. Although we were encouraged to view the mission holistically and in comparative terms, we were in no way constrained to arrive at some preconceived verdict or opinion or to alter our conclusions once reached.

The local political context was critical to both the successes and limitations of RAMSI. The mission occurred in the aftermath of five years of debilitating civil strife. That conflict had changed in shape over those pre-­‐intervention years: from a struggle between two rival militia groups (1998-­2000) to a phase of  internecine conflict and more criminalized disturbances (2000-­2003). In several respects, the second phase posed an even greater challenge to the integrity of the state. The less cohesive character of the conflicting militia groups over 2000-­2003 frustrated efforts to forge a domestically orchestrated peace settlement, as did the absence of authoritative and credible local mediators to incline the contending parties to conclude a sustainable peace.

The arrival of RAMSI circumvented the need for a home-­grown peace process, but it also highlighted the weakness of the state. The frequency of use of the term ‘statebuilding’ to describe the mission is itself a measure of how little RAMSI concentrated on ‘peacebuilding’, the other term often used to describe international humanitarian missions. The priorities were the tension trials, re-­establishing the rule of law and restoring integrity to the management of government finances. The Howard Government wanted to radically ‘re-­engineer’ Solomon Islands to conform to fashionable ideas of ‘good governance’ and economic liberalism, but this project lacked any groundswell of support from amongst the country’s elected politicians. Those ambitious objectives faded in prominence during the decade, particularly after the crisis years of 2006-­7.

RAMSI was a unique type of intervention. It was the first ever mission under the auspices of the Pacific Islands Forum’s Biketawa Declaration. It was reliant on a concert of regional states, but with Australia and New Zealand playing the predominant role, potentially providing a precedent for other interventions in Oceania with both positive and negative consequences.

This was not a United Nations mission, yet it bore some resemblance to such missions in East Timor and Kosovo. It combined a military component with a police-­‐building and rule of law orientation, but also entailed a substantial package of foreign aid for governance and economic development programs. Unlike East Timor and Kosovo, there would be no externally imposed ‘transitional’ administration. The Solomon Islands government retained executive authority. There was never any internal or regional support for either dual sovereignty or the transfer of executive power to a foreign entity.

The mission was led by a ‘Special Coordinator’ who was directly accountable to Canberra (with a New Zealand deputy), rather than a ‘Special Representative’ (as in East Timor or Kosovo) of an international organisation. In this respect, the legal framing of the mission was detached from its command structure. Keeping firm bilateral control enabled the Australian government to retain close supervision of a substantial package of development assistance inserted under the auspices of RAMSI. The New Zealand Government contributed to RAMSI but preferred to keep its major aid initiatives separate.

During the troubled 2006-­7 period when RAMSI encountered a sustained local challenge to its legitimacy, the ready-to-hand solution was widely identified as being to enhance regional authority over the mission. This view was not only formed in Solomon Islands, and at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, but also amongst those in Canberra and Wellington who saw the potential value of making a more creative use of regionalism. With the benefit of hindsight, RAMSI might have been better constituted as a narrower regionally-­controlled peacekeeping and peace­‐building operation, including the legal and judicial assistance, but with the governance and economic elements handled separately through bilateral or multi‐lateral agencies.

Solomon Islands political leaders were mostly favourable to RAMSI, but the majority simultaneously expressed reservations. Proposals for ‘shared sovereignty’ garnered little support, and the focus instead – from early in the RAMSI decade – was on an exit strategy, and whether that should best be shaped by some arbitrary deadline or by fulfilment of the mission’s ambitious objectives. Neither the Solomon Islands Government nor the Australian or New Zealand Governments nor the Pacific Islands Forum indicated support for an indefinite extension of RAMSI. In practice, RAMSI was dismantled in accordance with a fixed date, with the military component ended and development assistance transferred to bilateral or other multilateral agencies on 1st July 2013.

The main priority for the Solomon Islands Government in the years ahead is not solely to cement progress made during the RAMSI decade, but also to restore confidence across key state institutions. The RAMSI years have been a period of recovery, but they have also fostered a sense of dependency and demoralization, particularly evident in the police force. Watching better-­paid, better-­equipped, Australian Federal Police officers re-establish the rule of law is not an obvious path to self-­reliance. This helps to explain the difficulties encountered in trying to achieve a greater focus on ‘capacity-­building’ and ‘sustainability’ under the 2009-­13 ‘Partnership Agreement’. A major fear of the public is the risk of a resurrection of the tensions in some form.

Those state institutions that experienced a lighter RAMSI touch have also fared better subsequently, and in these areas the gains are potentially more sustainable. This is particularly so in parts of the public sector where local champions were encouraged, where an institutional culture based on merit was cultivated, and where RAMSI advisors and in-­line personnel adjusted well to the local context (as many did).

We think it advisable for the Solomon Islands Government and the Pacific Islands Forum to think of the RAMSI decade in the past tense, rather than as merely ‘transitioned’. RAMSI is no longer what it was over 2003-­13. It remains only as a police assistance program, and the Participating Police Force is now half its former size. Bilateral aid programs will continue, but declared Australian aid has been shrinking since 2009 (mainly due to the decrease in the AFP deployment), and priorities will clearly shift as time goes by. Indeed, they have done so already since July 2013.

The years ahead will therefore require greater self‐reliance, but that has its potential advantages. The real test of the robustness of what RAMSI has put in place will be in its aftermath.

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