As the Pacific confronts some of the biggest challenges in history, regional collaboration is the way forward.

Twenty years ago, Australia led RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.  

It was the biggest Pacific security operation since World War II, involving 15 countries, and one of Australia’s greatest foreign policy achievements. Its success stands in stark contrast to the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the same period. 

There were three critical elements to RAMSI’s success.  

First, Australian leadership. That took a while and needed a new paradigm for Australia’s Pacific relations. In 2000, Australia had refused a Solomons’ request for 50 police, and the country slid further into crisis.  

Australia’s refusal was consistent with its approach during the post-colonial period, worried about sensitivities which could also be a cover for inattention, even neglect. RAMSI’s deployment in 2003 broke Australia’s hands-off orthodoxy.  

RAMSI shows what’s possible from the fusion of Australian leadership and Pacific character. Photo: CPL Belinda Mepham/Australian Government Department of Defence.

Australia showed the courage to forge a new relationship; there’s Australia’s Pacific policy before and after RAMSI. Many of Australia’s Pacific policies today – labour mobility, infrastructure cooperation, budget support – are thanks to the new, more proactive era RAMSI launched. 

The sustained commitment beyond the initial crisis phase was new for Australia too. At a time when Western democracies had been criticised for short-termism and hyper-partisanship, here was a 14-year bipartisan commitment to regional security. 

Second, RAMSI’s Pacific character was essential, providing comfort to Solomon Islanders and ensuring the mission proceeded in a spirit of partnership. RAMSI wouldn’t have succeeded as an Australian mission alone. The patient, Pacific approach contributed to RAMSI’s longevity and allowed the mission to work in sensitive areas.  

RAMSI drew hundreds of police, military and civilian personnel from across the Pacific. Even very small national police services made the sacrifice to send representatives, recognising the need to invest in something of regional importance. 

Many who served in RAMSI describe it as the highlight of their careers, proud of the cultural skills they brought to the mission and grateful for the technical skills and perspectives they took back to their home countries.  

RAMSI’s alumni continue to be a valuable network for regional collaboration. Many went on to achieve senior leadership positions back home as police commissioners, deputy police commissioners and in Papua New Guinea’s case, the Chief of the Defence Force.  

RAMSI’s Pacific character was reinforced by the Pacific Islands Forum’s initial authorisation of RAMSI, and ongoing support. The Forum’s involvement usefully demonstrated to the world its own evolution, and how members could come together to address a crisis.  

Former Secretary General Tuiloma Neroni Slade has said RAMSI was an achievement of historic magnitude; and a reminder that no country can manage their future alone in today’s world. 

Third, RAMSI represented the right level of intervention. RAMSI arrived in peace at the invitation of the Solomon Islands government and worked alongside Solomon Islanders to restore government capacity.  

Many Australians who served in RAMSI describe it as the highlight of their careers. Photo: CPL Belinda Mepham/Australian Government Department of Defence.

RAMSI focused on the things that an external mission could do: it eliminated militancy and weapons from the community, stabilised the economy and re-built the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, the courts and correctional services. This focus allowed RAMSI to leave in friendship after 14 years, and while still popular. 

It’s true that RAMSI addressed the manifestations of the ethnic conflict, and not always the root causes. Those include unemployment, the youth bulge and tensions over communal land use. Those challenges remain and are serious. Solomon Islands, along with Kiribati and Tuvalu, is one of the least developed countries in the Pacific. 

But these complex issues are best left to Solomon Islands’ democratic processes, rather than an external intervention force. RAMSI provided space for Solomon Islanders to work through those issues, and gifted Solomons the ability to decide on its own future. 

Solomons journalist Gina Kekea has said: “Australia and New Zealand are there to help us, but we just need to sort ourselves. We need to pull ourselves together and become a strong united Solomon Islands because this is our home.”  

RAMSI shows what’s possible from the fusion of Australian leadership and Pacific character. That fusion will be essential as the Pacific confronts some of the biggest challenges in human history: climate change and the changing geopolitical landscape.  

Regional collaboration will see the way through. As RAMSI did twenty years ago, today’s campaign for Australia and the Pacific to co-host a UN Climate Change Conference shows what’s possible when the “Pacific family” is at its best.  

This article was co-published with The Canberra Times

Professor Dave Peebles is the Director of the Australia Pacific Security College at ANU. The College’s special vodcast series on RAMSI is available at www.pacificsecurity.net  

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