The Guardian July 23, 2003


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.

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