RAMSI set for significant change next year

By Online Editor
3:57 pm GMT+12, 01/08/2012, Australia

The head of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI, has outlined the changes to the mission which will come into effect next year.

RAMSI has been in Solomon Islands since 2003, when it was invited in to assist with a return to law and order and effective governance, after six years of ethnic tension.

For its first few years the mission provided an overt and active security presence, with soldiers and police from contributing nations of the Pacific Islands’ Forum, working at the frontline in disarming militants and bringing to justice those involved in the tensions.

But in recent years it’s stepped back from that frontline role.

The participating police from the mission have closed most of their posts around the country, and mostly now act as advisers, and in June next year the military arm of the mission will leave the country.

Nicholas Coppel is RAMSI’s Special Co-Ordinator, and he has the job of overseeing that drawdown, which will lead to a significant change in the mission’s role.

Coppel has been in Melbourne this week, and he came into the Radio Australia studios to discuss these changes with Pacific Correspondent Campbell Cooney.

Presenter: Campbell Cooney

Speaker: The Special Co-ordinator of RAMSI, Nicholas Coppel

COPPEL: There’s a range of changes that have been happening for quite a number of years I think in relation to RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands. In the policing area for example we’ve pulled back from day-to-day policing or what’s commonly called “everyday policing”, and RAMSI’s focus now is very much on building up the capacity and the capability of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. And that reflects the security situation in the country. As I mentioned the changes have been underway for some time, even in the development assistance part of RAMSI there have been changes in the way we deliver assistance. There’s much less of the Australians coming in doing the in-line work, and much more of the building up the capabilities of Solomon Islanders. So that’s why it’s being called transition, it’s a process, it’s not an exit strategy, it’s not a sudden thing that happens overnight, but it’s a process of change. It’s been underway for some time. But the first of July next year really is the beginning of the next phase of RAMSI. RAMSI will be continuing but the focus will be very much on .

COONEY: It’ll be a very, very different sort of thing to what it was say two years ago, three years ago?

COPPEL: Very different, the development assistance package, which has been part of RAMSI, is going to be absorbed into AusAid’s bilateral program. And as you mentioned Stephen Smith, the Australian Minister for Defence in April this year came to the Solomon Islands and spoke with the Prime Minister and talked about the withdrawal of the RAMSI military component in the second half of next year. So if those two changes, the military and the development assistance, that will leave RAMSI as a mission focussed on policing, providing support to the Solomon Islands police force.

COONEY: It sounds like then if you’re giving a lot of that development work to AusAid to implement and to administrate then, we’re looking at a much smaller, much more streamlined operation for the mission. Will it still be known as RAMSI with sort of that name?

COPPEL: Yes it will still be called RAMSI, it’ll still be a regional mission, it will still have a contribution from all, we hope from all the Pacific island countries to the RAMSI police force. The Pacific Islands Forum will continue to provide an oversight role for RAMSI, and it’ll be continuing for at least another four years, but in a much smaller more focussed role.

COONEY: I know you mentioned in an interview with a colleague of mine that at times when you start talking to locals over there about the military going out there, they don’t really take that too well, they don’t think that’s such a great idea. How do they feel then about the fact that this mission is going to significantly change in the way it operates and the way its focus is going to be?

COPPEL: I think there’s a lot of reassurance that comes from when people hear that the RAMSI participating police force will remain in country in a significant strength for at least the next four years. To some extent we wonder whether local people understand the distinction between military and police, it’s a country that doesn’t have a military force. Sometimes in Australia we talk about blue, referring to police, and we talk about green referring to military. Well in Solomon Islands blue yes is police, but green is the correctional services, so that distinction is one which is sometimes lost on people and for understandable reasons. But the security that’s been provided to the Solomon Islands since RAMSI’s arrival has been police-led, it’s been the police force that’s been at the front line of providing security.

COONEY: Security issues of course tend to dominate things when we still talk about RAMSI.  The other side of course is governance and management and all those sort of things. I mean how are they going at being ready to take on those more responsibilities? Will you guys perhaps draw back from that part of things as well and leave them to run things on their own?

COPPEL: I think good progress has been made. When RAMSI first came in it was designed as a post-conflict intervention, and by definition because the public service and government had been so destroyed and so weakened during the period of the tensions, many of the people, the RAMSI personnel in the early days came in and actually did the work of government officials, the Solomon Island government officials. We call that in-line. But progressively we’ve been stepping back from the in-line and training and recruiting Solomon Islanders to do that work. A good example is the Correctional Services Solomon Islands. In the early days RAMSI had over 50 personnel in Correctional Services Solomon Islands, the prison service, and they effectively ran the prison services pretty much from top to bottom. Today, the Correctional Services Solomon Islands is run by Solomon Islanders, the number of RAMSI personnel there has been reduced from over 50 to around 10. All those 10 are advisors, none of them are in-line performing the duties that Solomon Islanders should be doing. So that’s true across the board, including those other areas in the Ministry of Finance and Treasury, in the Ombudsman’s office and other areas of government where RAMSI has been providing assistance since 2003.

COONEY: Is there any thought at the moment of what happens after that four years?

COPPEL: One July next year will be the beginning of the next four year phase of RAMSI, and the decision on what will happen in the period after then are still to be made, it’s still a decision into the future.

COONEY: As far as the timing of this change, it’ll be ten years at that stage. Is it timely that it happens now before it could be perhaps seen by Solomon Islands as just part of the make-up that these guys are here, that soldiers are here, frontline police officers are here, the people are in governance. I suppose what I’m getting at is it time for the change to happen before it’s seen as a cargo cult, keeping the mission in there as well?

COPPEL: I think the decision on changes to RAMSI are being driven very much by the circumstances on the ground rather than oh it’s ten years, it’s the ten-year anniversary, it is time for change. It’s been very much task-bound, I mean RAMSI’s had a mandate since the outset. But if you look at what that mandate is and look at the progress that the country has made, that’s what says it’s time for a change in the way assistance is being delivered. But I think it’s important to emphasise, particularly on the development assistance part of RAMSI’s work, that’s not ending, it’s just moving across to the bilateral aid program. And there are a number of benefits in doing it that way, partly because RAMSI is a short-term mission. There’s always a degree of uncertainty over how long it’ll be in the country and how long will this assistance continue to be provided for. Moving it to AusAid’s program helps get a degree of certainty about aid, because we know AusAid will be continuing to provide assistance to Solomon Islands for many years to come into the future. The other thing is RAMSI is designed and conceived as a post-conflict intervention, and moving from that to a normal bilateral aid program I think sends an important message to Solomon Islands, to the world more broadly that the country has moved on quite considerably since those dark days or the period of the tensions. And today it’s a normal peaceful country, but one that still has significant development changes, and that’s why the aid program is continuing.

COONEY: You were telling me earlier you first went into Solomon Islands in 2004, this is before of course you became Special Coordinator. You’ve been there about once a year for different reasons in that time since. What’s the difference that you’ve noticed from say 2004 till now?

COPPEL: Yes my first visit was in 2004 for a meeting and for different purposes I’ve been back almost every year since. The thing that impacts me most is the economic development that’s taken place in Solomon Islands. It’s a country which is booming, it’s recorded well over 10 per cent economic growth last year, coming from a range of different sources, it’s not just Gold Ridge mine coming back into the business or the oil palms coming back into business, those two projects of course have contributed significantly, but you also see it very much in Honiara, a lot of construction going on, hotel businesses, office buildings, you feel it in the pulse of the city, you feel it in the streets where traffic jams have once again become a common experience. The country has that feel.


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