The new Australian government will need to put aside its predecessor’s tough talk regarding China, and instead fix the blurred and messy security engagement Australia currently has in Solomon Islands.
After the November 2021 riots in the Solomon Island’s capital city Honiara, Australia established the Solomon Islands Assistance Force (SIAF), which included personnel from the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Defence Force, New Zealand, Fiji. Another arrangement also brought forces from Papua New Guinea. AFP Commander Paul Osbourne was sworn in as the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) Assistant Police Commissioner.
SIAF arrived after the worst of the rioting was over, but the increased police presence did help to restore calm and stop looting in the first few days after the riots. Then, it was announced it would stay longer, and even longer, now supposedly until the end of 2023. The rationale for such a long stay is unclear, and communication about the scope of the mission has been lacking. The Solomon Islands Police Commissioner Mostyn Mangau used to do weekly media conferences, but these are no longer routine. However, in a recent rare conference with Commander Osbourne , he refused to confirm the number of foreign personnel in SIAF and details have been sparse on how they set priorities and do their work.
The expatriate leaders in the security space from the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) years who are remembered favourably, tended to be skilled communicators who also established their own links with communities. Police Commissioner Frank Prendergast, for instance, routinised meetings with media and civil society groups such as women’s groups and church leaders. Such leaders managed to bridge the social awkwardness of being Western men in a Pacific setting. These actions were good for public relations and trust, but they also strengthened police intelligence on what was happening, and where the real threats were. Solomon police desperately need coordinated intelligence, a more proactive approach to investigations, and action to respond to street theft, illegal alcohol brewing, organised prostitution, and money laundering, all occurring within metres of its police stations.
Furthermore, while RAMSI had problems, it did possess some accountability mechanisms and generally responded quickly to serious misconduct by foreign personnel. The personnel involved in SIAF are less coordinated, and there is no clear information about how to report misconduct. To date, the Papua New Guinea personnel have been involved in a few incidents of alleged misconduct, the most serious being the physical assault of a religious leader. Little action was taken, with an organised reconciliation, but no assurance of accountability.
Under the controversial security pact between China and Solomon Islands, there is potential for deployment of Chinese personnel in Solomon Islands. Ideally, RSIPF will come up with some scenario where Chinese, PNG, and SIAF forces can work together, not compete, on the ground, and where the same accountability and transparency applies to all.
The newly elected leaders of Australia need to insist that its security and diplomatic agencies work together to clearly demarcate what are the metrics for success in the current SIAF. These agencies must understand how accountability across forces will be achieved, how they will communicate with the public and civil society to build trust, and when the SIAF will finish. Otherwise, Australia will be in a long and potentially unpopular engagement in Solomon Islands, one that is sometimes criticised as “propping up” Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who since 2019 has faced several calls by opposition and civil society to step down.
The second red line that needs to be drawn concerns the major short- and long-term threat to Solomon Islands security: the 2023 general election. While the use of violence by rioters cannot be condoned, it is a symbolic political action expressing the discontent citizens feel towards the current governing coalition and its closer and secretive ties with China. If there are any moves that are perceived to be actions by the current leaders to thwart people’s right to vote freely, there will be a heightened risk of violence, potentially on a wide scale.
The independence of police and judiciary will be vital in resolving protests and arguments that arise during the election. The last few years have seen the police used in cases that might be perceived locally as politically motivated. For instance, the policing of online posts by a church pastor about the need for Guadalcanal people to control their development and the arrest of youths undertaking a silent protest against the government switching relations to China, was criticised in the media.
Australia and international agencies like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) do play a role in funding elections and can request processes be put in place to deal with likely disputes, such as allegations of threats and inducements to voters. Support from Australia and partners for the election, must be better synced with policing, security, and justice interventions, so that evidence-gathering and prosecution can proceed quickly. It is likely that whichever side wins the Solomon election, the losing side will try to gain power by contesting results through the courts. This could lead to security incidents as supporters from either side can gather and clash in Honiara around the courthouse and in the constituencies.
This election will be crucial in Solomon Island history, and Australia needs to support it as a security priority. This next election will either provide an outlet for dissent and lead to the accommodation of different views on security and politics, or set the country back onto a course where oppositional groups view the only option for change as rioting during political transitions, or establishing movements for separatism and violence. Australia must work strategically and coordinate with other major donors to establish a “red line” around the next election: safeguarding the process, ensuring the election is free and fair, and peacefully resolving any security incidents that might arise.
Dr Anouk Ride is an Affiliate Researcher with Australian National University and with the Initiative for Peacebuilding, University of Melbourne. She researches conflict, interpersonal violence, gender, and social inclusion and is based in Solomon Islands.
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