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Australia Considers Intervention in Solomon Islands Unrest - 2003-06-18

The Australian Government is considering armed intervention in the troubled Solomon Islands to prevent the collapse of government services and reverse a decline in law and order. The Solomons is spiraling out of control since the government was toppled in a vicious ethnic war three years ago.

Australia believes the Solomon Islands is facing a complete breakdown of law and order. The government of Alan Kemakeza, elected 18 months ago, has failed to restore stability after a coup deposed a previous administration.

A failing state on their doorstep is a serious concern for officials in Canberra, who worry it could become a haven for terrorists and drug traffickers.

So Australia is considering armed intervention in the South Pacific island nation.

A new report under discussion in Canberra proposes sending a multinational police force of 150 officers from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, backed by a small military contingent. The plan calls for a United Nations-style administration in the Solomons, staffed by experts who would run the judiciary, prison, and the finance ministries.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says the island nation of 500,000 people, which sits in the South Pacific several thousand kilometers northwest of Australia, is in desperate need of help.

"There are high numbers of unemployed young people wandering the streets, children are not receiving the education they need," says Mr. Downer. "Without donor help there would be no health services in the provinces at all. Economic activity will not revive without a substantial improvement in the law and order situation."

The Solomon Islands is a snaking archipelago, peopled in part by tribes who are fiercely independent. Violent disputes are common.

Long-standing ethnic tensions between residents of the main island of Guadacanal and settlers from the nearby island province of Malaita are the source of much of the violence. These groups fought a war five years ago in which more than 200 people were killed.

Hostilities ended three years ago but many weapons remain in the hands of combatants and the peace is not an easy one.

The government in Honiara, the capital, admits it cannot cope. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Kemakeza asked Australia for help.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which is advising the government on the crisis, is asking foreign donors for half a billion dollars over the next 10 years, of which Australia would be expected to pay half.

But even with foreign aid, Dr. Ellie Wainwright, who drafted the institute's report, believes armed intervention is not avoidable. "It would certainly entail the use of maximum force and potentially lethal force to disarm the militias, to ensure that those who are responsible for crimes are punished, because what you have in this kind of culture of lawlessness," says Dr. Wainwright. "The militia and the criminals are not only allowed to operate with impunity, they have reached and are in league with the very highest sort of echelons of the police and in politics."

William Morrell is the English police commissioner appointed to the Solomon Islands earlier this year. He says a multinational police force is not the answer. "I don't think there's a simple solution that you can just transfer 100 police across and dump them in the Solomon Islands and that's going to solve your problems. It's not."

But Mr. Morrell, whose job is financed by the European Union, agrees that the current situation is out of control. "Certainly law and order will provide the environment where other things can function and at the moment that's not happening," says Mr. Morrell. "Government is not functioning properly."

If Australia does get involved, it would mark Australia's biggest intervention in the South Pacific in 30 years and a sign the government is focusing on security concerns close to home.