Australia to restore order in Solomons with armed force

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The Independent Online

No one gave a fig about the Solomon Islands as the once-idyllic South Pacific nation began its nightmarish descent into lawlessness and bankruptcy. Australia, the regional power, stood by as rival militia gangs ran amok and the country was torn apart by a coup and ethnic fighting. As far as the outside world was concerned, the Solomons was off the radar.

No one gave a fig about the Solomon Islands as the once-idyllic South Pacific nation began its nightmarish descent into lawlessness and bankruptcy. Australia, the regional power, stood by as rival militia gangs ran amok and the country was torn apart by a coup and ethnic fighting. As far as the outside world was concerned, the Solomons was off the radar.

Now, five years on, Australia has abruptly woken up to its responsibilities. It plans to lead an armed intervention force to restore law and order in the archipelago, and to help rebuild institutions so fractured and corrupt that civil government has ceased to function. New Zealand and several other South Pacific nations will contribute troops and police.

It was not a sudden burst of altruism that prompted this change of heart by Canberra, which has favoured a hands-off approach to regional problems. It was the prospect that a "failed state" on its doorstep could become a haven for drug smuggling, gun running, money laundering - and terrorism. So, as preached by the United States post-11 September, pre-emptive action had to be taken.

The plan is to send 2,000 police and troops to the former British colony by the end of this month. It will be Australia's biggest military deployment in the Pacific since the Second World War. Law and order has broken down in the 1,000-island archipelago, with parts of the country controlled by warlords and criminal gangs and the tiny police force so poorly equipped that many officers lack uniforms.

Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has coined the term "co-operative intervention" to illustrate the fact that the Solomons - home to half a million people - is a willing partner. So dire is the situation in the former "Happy Isles", as they were known, that there is widespread political and community support for outside assistance.

Canberra has made plain it sees no need to seek wider legitimacy for the operation, beyond having it endorsed by a few small Pacific states with neither the muscle nor the inclination to disagree. Last week Mr Downer poured scorn on multilateralism, calling it "a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator".

Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, said yesterday that the country planned to take a more assertive role in the Pacific. Mr Downer said meanwhile that "sovereignty in our view is not absolute".

The Solomons, ruled by Britain until 1978, is a colonial creation of islands with disparate ethnic and language groups. Guadalcanal, the main island, was the scene of a pivotal Second World War battle.

Britain established the capital, Honiara, on the site of a former US air base, prompting people from neighbouring Malaita to move there for work. Malaitans came to dominate the economy and ethnic tensions exploded in 1998, leading to a coup in 2000 in which Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, the prime minister, was deposed. Hundreds were killed and thousands driven from their homes. A peace accord, which Australia helped to negotiate, averted full-scale civil war, but the country has since degenerated into anarchy and economic turmoil.

In the jumpy new world order, the Solomons represents one of several dysfunctional states in Australia's backyard. Papua New Guinea, to the north, is chronically unstable, while Vanuatu and Fiji suffer sporadic problems. East Timor gives cause for concern.

Australia's macho Solomons policy is designed to send a signal to other failing nations. It is not clear whether it will be replicated elsewhere, but commentators noted the plural used by Mr Howard, when he declared that it was not in Australia's interests to have "a number of failed states in the Pacific".

The commitment will be longand expensive. Casualties are likely and the force risks getting bogged down in jungle terrain. One warlord, Harold Keke, has murdered 50 people this year on Guadalcanal.

Having ignored earlier pleas for help, Australia now sees no option but to comply. Otherwise, in the words of a recent report by a respected think-tank: "Our neighbour risks reverting not to a pre-modern tropical paradise but to a kind of post-modern badlands, ruled by criminals and governed by violence."

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