RAMSI was set up in 2003 to help settle civil unrest which had resulted in a state of anarchy and economic collapse.
Yesterday's meeting discussed cutting back the size of the RAMSI as set out in the original Framework Agreement.
No representative of Vanuatu, the current chair of RAMSI, was able to attend because of last weekend change of government in Port Vila, so Australia's parliamentary Secretary for pacific Affairs, Richard Marles took the chair.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Richard Marles, Australia's parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island Affairs
MARLES: In terms of RAMSI's future I think the first thing that's got to characterise the way forward is that it be marked with a deep sense of consultation amongst all the partners of the forum, but particularly between RAMSI and the Solomon Islands government itself. Transition from where we are now to a more normal set of bilateral relationships between Solomon Island countries and the Solomon Islands certainly needs to happen and is in fact well underway, but it's a process which needs to be done carefully and needs to be done with a full sense of ownership and cooperation with the Solomon Islands government and I think the main thing that came out of yesterday is that is the way in which things are proceeding and that's how we want the transition to be characterised. But on a larger sense, it's understood by all that RAMSI was never intended to be a permanent mission, it was always a temporary one. It is about getting the Solomon Islands back on its feet. Great gains have been made in doing that, but RAMSI won't be here forever and the transition needs to occur.
COUTTS: OK, we'll talk about the exit strategy in just a moment, but are you suggesting that the focus for RAMSI while it is there will change from one of policing perhaps a more military-based one to a community-based one, where you get into developmental projects?
MARLES: Well, RAMSI has been involved in developmental projects from day one and that is very much a focus of what it already does and I think it is right to.
COUTTS: But I think the emphasis is getting out of the policing and only doing development programs?
MARLES: Oh no, I wouldn't say that. I think the policing role is very important and that was acknowledged yesterday and I actually think the role that has been played with the Royal Solomon Islands police force is incredibly important and that is going to be an ongoing role and I think that will persist for as long as any of the elements of RAMSI. So policing still remains a very important part of the RAMSI mission and will continue to do so for sometime. But I think it is right to focus on development as well and development within the country and within the capacity of the government, but also very much within the police force itself. I think that's a key part of the Solomon Islands being back on its feet and of the Solomon Islands having a secure future that the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force is an excellent police force and has the capacity to deal with the issues here in the Solomon Islands and that there's a lot of work still to be done in relation to that.
COUTTS: Well, it's probably hard to put a date on it, but people have talked for sometime about an exit strategy. Is there an approximation of time left for RAMSI in Solomon Islands?
MARLES: No, is the sort answer to that. It's impossible put a date on and we're certainly not doing that. RAMSI will be in the Solomon Islands for as long as it takes to get the job done and that literally is as long as it takes. And so I'm not sure that we like the phrase exit strategy. It's really more a transition, because in a developmental sense, in Australia through its bilateral aid program will be in the Solomon Islands long after RAMSI as an entity has ceased to continue. But so it's really more a transition from where we are now to a more normal bilateral aid program with the Solomon Islands. But in any event, that transition I don't think ought to be measured in terms of time. It needs to be measured in terms of various achievements having been completed and many are still to be completed. But when the job's done, that's really when the time is right for RAMSI to transition into that normal bilateral relationship.
COUTTS: When will the job be done, how will we know?
MARLES: Oh well as I say, that I think is very much a matter to be determined by all the members of the RAMSI mission, but also in consultation with the Solomon Islands government itself and there really is a robust structure that has been put in place to assess that and the forum ministerial standing committee which we held yesterday is very central to that structure and I think through that committee, through the Pacific Island Forum itself and through the various consultations that occur between RAMSI and the Solomon Islands, the judgements need to be made about what are the right moments to take particular steps in terms of drawing down the (inaudible) task force, the military component to RAMSI, what's the right moment to be reducing the next number of police in the participating police force which supports the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force and what is the right moment to be transitioning a particular development project which is being conducted by RAMSI into the bilateral aid program which exists between Australia and the Solomon Islands. But I think there is a high degree of trust and goodwill between the Solomon Islands government and between all the partners in the RAMSI mission and that was certainly felt in yesterday's meeting and I have no doubt that the right judgements will be made and that goodwill is very important base for making sure that we get this right.
I mean to put this in its largest sense, RAMSI has been an unmitigated success. You described it in your opening in terms of the situation the Solomon Islands was in before RAMSI arrived and if you look at the Solomon Islands today on this beautiful morning in Honiara. We've been here in a week where the forum ombudsman conference has been happening in Honiara where the forum health ministers conference has been happening. We have been here. There's been a meeting hosted for the assistant-secretary of the United States who visited during the week. All of these speak incredibly of the confidence that the region now has in the Solomon Islands and it says a lot about the confidence of the Solomon Islands itself. So there is great gains that have been made. We just got to make sure that in the transition that occurs that none of these gains are lost, that the transition does occur, but none of these gains are lost and there are difficult judgements in that, but I think the right relationships are in place to make sure that those judgements can be made.
COUTTS: Well, it was contentious I guess to start with, because there were those who oppose the presence of RAMSI in the country and there's still a small faction that continue to oppose RAMSI's presence in Solomon Islands and there are also reports that there are still simmering unrest in various places across the Solomon Islands, so the job of policing as you describe is not yet over and needs to continue. But again, what's it going to take for RAMSI to recognise that it can leave?
MARLES: Well, I think it's going to take is a sense that the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force does have the ability and the capacity to continue policing work in a way which maintains the security that's currently enjoyed by people in the Solomon Islands today.
COUTTS: And, how much long will it take to train a police force? RAMSI's been here sometime now.
MARLES: Yeah well, again, I think it's difficult to put a time frame on it, but there's a lot of development work being done around the police force and really that's as bigger part of the involvement in the police force now as the front line policing role is. The training of the Solomon Islands police force is really the focus of the work which is being done with the police force in the Solomon Islands. So it's difficult to put a precise time on that. But I think that is a key measure to make sure that if the policing function were to leave, that the security that is currently enjoyed would continue.
I think there are also measures that need to be looked at in terms of the capacity of the government and that's an important part of it as well. Although I would also make this point that we will as I've said continue to have a development program here in the Solomon Islands long after RAMSI has gone and that in some ways being able to pursue development projects under our bilateral program actually enables longer term projects to be proceeded with than it does under the current RAMSI framework. So these are all fine judgements, but as I say I think the processes and the relationships are in place and the goodwill is certainly in place to make sure that we get those judgements right.
COUTTS: How much do economic pressures play on RAMSI's presence in Solomon Islands at the moment, because we continue to hear that within five years, once the logging runs out, then that's most of the basis for the economy at the moment and there's going to be job losses, people out of work. How much more pressure will there be over that period on RAMSI's presence?
MARLES: Economic pressure on the Solomon Islands, do you mean?
MARLES: Yeah, look I think that's a really good question and there's no doubt that economic opportunity and in some cases the lack of economic opportunity goes to the underlying causes of the tensions that existed and need to be addressed to make sure those causes don't rear their heads in the future. And I think trying to envisage and then implement an economic future for the Solomon Islands is very key.
Yesterday after the meeting, we visited the Gold Ridge mine, which is a significant enterprise here on Guadalcanal. But I think what's really important about the story of the Gold Ridge mine is it had been in operation for a number of years until the year 2000 when it closed as a result of the tensions that were existing in the Solomon Islands and it only reopened production or continued production in March, of this year, so it was really shut down for 11 years, but it has now begun and as we went up, there it was humming really and employing close to 800 Solomon Islanders. And so it's a really good example of the economy getting back on its feet and providing those opportunities which do mean that the pressures you've described aren't upon the community here and economic opportunities are provided for the Solomon Islands going forward and I think mining is one area, but agricultural production is another which needs to be focused upon. This is a beautiful country and I think there are enormous opportunities for tourism. That won't happen overnight, but in the longer term I think this country has a huge tourist potential. But all of these need to be worked through and you're quite right to focus on that. It's a key part of getting to a future for the Solomon Islands which is peaceful and secure.