Solomon Islands’ parliamentary review highlights illegality of Australian occupation

A parliamentary review currently underway into the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) has shed further light on the illegal character of the Australian-dominated intervention force. The Solomons' review committee has received a number of submissions from legal experts and senior political figures explaining different aspects of RAMSI's contravention of the country's constitution.

The inquiry, conducted by the parliamentary foreign relations committee and headed by government MP Laurie Chan, commenced hearings on September 24 and is scheduled to report its findings to parliament by November 14. The review marks the first time that the intervention force's operations and legal underpinnings have been assessed by a Solomon Islands' body.

In July 2003, just four months after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the former Australian government of Prime Minister John Howard dispatched more than 2,000 soldiers, federal police, and officials to the Solomons. While cloaked in humanitarian rhetoric about the need to rescue a "failed" or "failing" state, the intervention was driven by Canberra's concern to maintain its long-standing dominance amid heightened great power rivalry in the region. The Howard government openly dispensed with concerns for international law and national sovereignty, just as the Bush administration had done in Iraq, and the Solomons takeover was heralded as a new model for potential interventions in neighbouring Pacific countries.

The United Nations never endorsed the RAMSI intervention. Its purported legality rested on a treaty agreement signed by the governments of the Solomons and Australia, together with those of New Zealand and other Pacific states which contributed forces to RAMSI. In addition, the Facilitation of International Assistance Act-which was drafted in Canberra ahead of RAMSI's deployment and then approved by the Solomons' parliament-effectively overrode the country's national sovereignty, constitution and laws.

The Facilitation Act and the international treaty are extraordinary legal documents. RAMSI personnel enjoy immunity from Solomons' criminal and civil law, including customs and immigration controls, are exempt from the country's taxation system, and have the right to use any road, bridge, port or airfield, and water, electricity and other public facilities free of charge. RAMSI headquarters and camps are "inviolable" and "subject to the exclusive control and authority" of the intervention force; no Solomon Islander, including police or other authorities, may enter the premises without RAMSI's permission. RAMSI personnel have the right to confiscate all firearms from Solomon Islanders -including those legally purchased and maintained-without compensation. RAMSI soldiers and police also have the right to "use such force as is reasonably necessary", including lethal force, to maintain "law and order in Solomon Islands".

The neo-colonial character of these provisions was clear from the outset of the intervention. That they are only now being reviewed is an expression of the escalating opposition to RAMSI among ordinary Solomon Islanders and its pale reflection within sections of the ruling elite.

Five years after the initial deployment of Australian forces, the "humanitarian" pretext has been exposed before broad layers of the local population. Hundreds of millions of dollars in so-called "aid" have been poured into inflated Australian Federal Police salaries, while a pittance has gone to basic health and education services. High-paid Australian officials have driven up inflation through the creation of a "bubble economy" in Honiara, the Solomons' capital, while rising fuel and food prices have further impoverished local people.

Within the political establishment, certain elements have bristled as RAMSI assumed control of the key levers of the country's state apparatus, including finance, the courts, police and prisons.

In May 2006, Manasseh Sogavare became prime minister and drew Canberra's ire after initially attempting to reduce RAMSI's control of the country's finance department. A vicious and protracted regime change operation ensued, with the Howard government launching a series of dirty tricks and provocations, including the attempted extradition of then Attorney-General Julian Moti on bogus statutory rape charges. This campaign culminated in Sogavare's ousting last December through a parliamentary vote of no confidence.

The parliamentary review currently underway was first proposed by the former Sogavare government. Sogavare had planned the review to be conducted with an element of public participation--nation-wide discussion forums involving ordinary Solomon Islanders. The proposed inquiry was adamantly opposed by the Australian government and senior RAMSI officials, who responded by stepping up their attacks on Sogavare.

Prime Minister Derek Sikua, who replaced Sogavare, made his government's top priority the re-establishment of close relations with Canberra. Its official policy statement released earlier this year raised the possibility of Australia maintaining a "permanent military and police presence" in the Solomons after "RAMSI completes the work it was requested to do". Sikua has also refused to release, most likely at the Australian government's request, the final report issued by the Commission of Inquiry into the April 2006 riots which destroyed much of Honiara. The report, which was finalised in April, will likely recommend that RAMSI's legal immunity be revoked.

Sikua scrapped Sogavare's proposal for the parliamentary review into RAMSI to involve national forums and lavished fulsome praise on the intervention force in his presentation to the review committee. He felt compelled to warn, however, that if RAMSI personnel continued to be perceived as unaccountable to the Solomons' government, "it will be difficult for RAMSI to maintain the support and consent of the local population and its leaders, a situation that Solomon Islands cannot afford."

RAMSI in violation of Solomons' constitution

Several submissions issued to the parliamentary foreign relations committee demonstrated the illegality of the Facilitation Act and therefore the RAMSI intervention as a whole.

Frank Ofagioro-chairman of the Solomons' Law Reform Commission and former attorney general and High Court judge-told the parliamentary committee that he regarded the Facilitation Act as "constitutionally defective". He added that he only decided against mounting a legal challenge after concluding that RAMSI's work was benefitting the country.

Ofagioro explained that section 31(1) of the Solomons' constitution only allows the governor-general to act with the authority of the cabinet or a minister of the crown, and that this appears to contradict section 3 of the Facilitation Act, which authorised the governor-general to issue an "international assistance notice" formally inviting the intervention force.

"If indeed this is the case," he continued, "then obviously everything that has been done or is being done under the authority of the Facilitation of International Assistance Act, 2003 is unconstitutional and therefore null and void under section 2 of the Constitution." He added: "Section 3 of the Facilitation of International Assistance Act, 2003 is the king-pin of the validity of the whole operation of RAMSI in Solomon Islands. Once this king-pin is removed, the whole RAMSI operation would collapse with its consequences."

In his submission, Governor-General Nathaniel Waena noted that the Facilitation Act refers only to the "visiting contingent", not RAMSI, making the latter an "illegal entity". He similarly observed that the international treaty covering the intervention nowhere refers to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the regional body which Canberra insists is responsible for overseeing RAMSI. In reality the Forum is nothing but a fig-leaf for Canberra's control.

The governor-general also condemned an extraordinary provision in section 24 of the Facilitation Act which bars the Solomons' parliament from passing any subsequent legislation that can be interpreted as "amending or repealing, or otherwise altering the effect or operation of, this Act". Waena noted that this clause contradicts the constitutional right of the parliament to "make laws for the peace, order and good government of Solomon Islands", and therefore renders the Facilitation Act "legally questionable".

Former Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's submission contained some of the sharpest attacks on RAMSI.

"RAMSI intervention is guided by the objectives of protecting the narrow strategic, national, and commercial interests of Australia and therefore it failed miserably to address the real issues that matter to the country's peace process," he wrote. "A RAMSI arrangement is hopeless when it comes to restoring democracy, an institution that Australia and the western world, especially USA and Great Britain advanced as the reason for their interventions in selective spots around the world. In fact it is becoming clearer that restoring democracy is just a cover up of their real agendas, which is to protect their narrow national interests."

Sogavare repeatedly referred to Australia's "re-colonisation" of the Solomons and characterised RAMSI as an "occupying force". He added: "The crude fact [is] that Australia is the authority behind RAMSI and camouflages itself under the pretext of helpim fren [‘Help a Friend'; RAMSI's pidgin slogan] to exercise legitimate authority over the government system of this country."

All of these points are entirely accurate. Sogavare's submission made clear, however, the conditional and unprincipled character of his differences with Australian imperialism. "Despite the nationalistic stand taken in this paper on our relationship with Australia, it has to be appreciated that Solomon Islands has no real problem with the military agenda of Australia in the Pacific," he wrote. And: "As far as RAMSI is concerned, again the problem is not RAMSI per se, but the way the intervention was undertaken to protect and advance Australia's national interests, which reflects on the legal framework that governs its presence and operation in the country."

Sogavare's strategy is to manoeuvre with Australia's rivals to secure a more favourable position for the Solomons' elite in relation to Canberra. His submission urged that Japan, Taiwan, and "other Asian countries" be invited to participate in RAMSI, in order to "instil some form of discipline on RAMSI to behave like a true collective member of the region".

The opposition leader proposed a long list of amendments to the Facilitation Act to make RAMSI and its personnel subject to the country's laws, but did not call for the legislation to be revoked. He rather tentatively concluded: "The Committee [needs] to seriously consider the question as to whether there is still a need for RAMSI style intervention to consolidate the achievements of RAMSI."

Canberra responds

Submissions from Australian and New Zealand officials-including Australia's acting high commissioner to the Solomons Alison Duncan, New Zealand's high commissioner Deborah Panckhurst, RAMSI special coordinator Tim George, and RAMSI police chief Peter Marshall-rejected outright any alteration to the Facilitation Act or to RAMSI's operations.

"The Australian government considers that the FIA [Facilitation of International Assistance] Act which underpins RAMSI's presence and activities in Solomon Islands remains appropriate and consistent with standard international practice," Alison Duncan declared.

"It is important that RAMSI personnel continue to have immunities as provided under the FIA Act. These immunities exist to help the mission run smoothly by insulating RAMSI personnel from the threat of individuals bringing vexatious legal claims which could distract from their core objective of assisting Solomon Islanders."

The real purpose of RAMSI's immunity is to give its personnel a free hand in implementing Canberra's dictates.

The Australian high commissioner challenged the need for the parliamentary review by insisting that the 2007 Pacific Islands Forum Task Force Review into RAMSI was sufficient. Canberra initiated the PIF review in an attempt to undercut Sogavare's preparations for a parliamentary review; predictably, it rubber stamped RAMSI's operations. Duncan cited the 2007 report's assertion that "any unilateral amendments to the FIA Act would inevitably have serious implications for the willingness of participating nations to continue contributing to RAMSI".

She added: "Any amendment to the RAMSI Treaty to mirror changes to the FIA Act would require fresh agreement by the fifteen contributing Pacific islands countries." The legal veracity of this assertion is questionable, but its meaning is clear-any amendment to the Facilitation Act may result in RAMSI's withdrawal. And together with RAMSI goes Australia's aid money; limited and distorted as these funds are, they remain vital for the impoverished Pacific country's economy.

The threat of a general Australian withdrawal is especially directed towards Prime Minister Sikua and others in his government who may prefer to adjust certain aspects of the Australian intervention, but not if that means risking RAMSI. There is no shortage of parliamentarians in Honiara whose political and financial interests are bound up with the ongoing presence of the Australian occupying force.

It remains to be seen whether the parliamentary inquiry simply ignores the submitted evidence of RAMSI's illegal character and endorses its activities, or whether it will propose some form of amendment to the Facilitation Act. But given the Sikua government's close alignment with Canberra, any legislative changes made will almost certainly be nothing more than cosmetic alterations intended to prevent any constitutional challenge to RAMSI's presence while preserving all its critical powers.