Regional disquiet over Solomons deployment
by Bob Briton Niggling problems are emerging for the Australian Government and its plans for a "shock and awe" campaign to establish its sway over the Solomon Islands. Members of the Solomon Islands Parliament are now openly expressing their misgivings at the "shoot to kill" authority to be given to the Australian-led intervention force and its anticipated immunity from prosecution by Solomon Islands courts and tribunals. The Solomons Minister for Peace, Unity and Reconciliation, Nathaniel Waena, told the media recently that, while he expected the Pacific nation's Parliament to approve the legislation in time for the first stage of the troop deployment next week, he considered the immunity issue, in particular, to be a "very, very sensitive matter" "It is not so much a case of being worried as accepting that there is a need for due consideration by parliament because there are issues of national sovereignty involved." Mr Waena is being very diplomatic in his choice of words. In fact, the push for the "enabling legislation" has heaped humiliation upon humiliation on the Solomon Islands. The drafting of the legislation in question is being "guided" by the Australian Attorney General's Department. Attorney General Daryl Williams has warned the Solomons Islands that additional assistance would require a solid legal foundation for the operation of foreign forces — weasel words for "do as we say or we'll starve your country of aid". Taking a leaf from the US book of military adventurism, Mr Williams maintains ". it is normal practice for the members of a visiting contingent to be accorded immunity from local jurisdiction for actions related to official duties." John Howard wants the legislation in place before his cabinet meets this week to finalise the details of the intervention. His government has already prevailed in its demand that a 30-day amnesty for the surrender of illegal weapons in the Solomon Islands be shortened to 14 days. Resentment at the approach of the Australian Government is spreading. The Foreign Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Rabbie Namaliu, made the following warning in the media recently: "There must not be a heavy-handed, over-the-top response which would have the potential to undermine community support in the Solomon Islands. Such a response would undermine regional support as well." PNG was one of the 16 Pacific nations that originally backed an Australian- led intervention force at a meeting held in Sydney three weeks ago. Concern would be growing in the PNG Government that the fragile peace now established on Bougainville could be shattered by provocative actions on the part of the 2000-strong military force due to descend on the Solomons. Mr Namaliu called on planners to revise the ratio of soldiers to police in the proposed force. At present, it is envisaged that 1500 Australian troops with 300 police will arrive in stages alongside 105 New Zealand troops, 35 NZ police and a further 123 Fijian troops. PNG's Foreign Minister fears that the high proportion of military in the force could send out a very negative message to the people of the region. However, Australia is pressing on heedlessly and appears keen to try out its new, more aggressive posture in relations with its Pacific neighbours. When Australia's Defence Minister Robert Hill and Defence Forces Chief General Peter Cosgrove attended a rain-sodden ceremony to mark the departure of the Australian-led Peace Monitoring Group (PMG) from Bougainville earlier this month, certain statements from Mr Hill had a decidedly "throw away" quality to them. Commenting on the role the 3500 unarmed Australian troops and 300 civilian personnel had played in policing the 1998 truce and subsequent peace agreement, Mr Hill noted: "The fact that it was an unarmed group — perhaps the first ever peacekeeping group to serve without access to weapons — is sometimes overlooked. But the absence of arms was fundamental to winning the trust of the local population." Clearly the Government has moved on from this "softly-softly" approach and no longer feels the need to consider the views of local populations.