Tue, Jul 08, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Australia plans to lead coalition in the Solomons

By Ben Sandilands  /  THE OBSERVER , CANBERRA

It is now certain Australia will spearhead an armed "co-operative intervention" in the violent and lawless Solomon Islands after the plan was backed unanimously by the 16 members of the Pacific Islands Forum, which includes Australia and New Zealand.

But in announcing his country's plan to act, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer took a swipe at the UN which, he said, was totally incapable of acting effectively in this situation. He said multilateralism was increasingly a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator.

"Sovereignty in our view is not absolute," he said.

His words, echoing a similar line coming out of Washington, have stunned politicians and observers. The former Australian ambassador to the UN (and once head of its weapons inspection team in Iraq) Richard Butler described the comments as "the most savage attack on the UN and the principles of international law that we've ever heard from any Australian government."

The Opposition Labor party spokesman on foreign affairs, Kevin Rudd, said: "Downer has forgotten that in one of darkest hours of need in relation to East Timor we needed every ounce of support from the UN."

But there were no apologies from Canberra.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the decision to intervene marked a very significant change in regional policy.

Australia was part of the "coalition of the willing" in the invasion of Iraq, and Howard is reported to have told his party that this time Australia would lead a Pacific version of such a coalition.

It was not in Australia's interests to have a number of failed states in the Pacific he said, as these had the potential to become havens for drug running, money laundering and terrorism.

The size of the Australian commitment to the planned intervention in the Solomons -- Downer calls it a "police operation" -- has been put as high as dozens of police and up to 1,500 Australian defense personnel which makes it almost as large as the country's commitment to the Iraq action in terms of numbers on the ground.

While government sources in Canberra point to the need to deal with unambiguous threats to national security right on Australia's doorstep, the more cynical among observers of Australia's political scene reckon the Solomons action will be used to draw attention away from the failure, so far, to find any of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq used to justify Australia's role in the Gulf War.

But domestic issues aside, the Solomons plan has regionwide backing and while New Zealand has distanced itself from the anti-UN rhetoric coming from Canberra, it has given its total support. It would be hard to do otherwise.

A tradition of ethnic rivalry between the two major Melanesian groups, the geographically dispersed Guadalcanalese and the more settled and concentrated Malaitans degenerated into separatist conflict in 1998. The long-rooted divisions were inflamed by latter-day rivalry over the spoils of the unrestrained logging of island rainforests by a group of Malaysian timber companies.

Hostilities usually take the form of guerrilla-style raids on homes or villages, with kidnappings and murders, often by beheading, now commonplace. This lethal mixture of guns and standover machismo is most prominently personified by militia leader Harold Keke.

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