Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles says the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands will shift focus, from a military presence to bilateral aid.
The Australian-led mission was deployed to Solomon Islands at the request of the Solomon’s government, in 2003.
But the military is likely to withdraw in the second half of 2013.
Mr Marles met with Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo on the sidelines of the Festival of Pacific Arts.
Nasya Bahfen spoke to Mr Marles from Honiara.
RICHARD MARLES: We had a good discussion yesterday and I commented on how far Solomon Islands have come since 2003 when the RAMSI mission first came to Solomon Islands.
When you think that is less than 10 years ago and Solomon Islands has in the last couple of months hosted the Oceanic Football Confederation Cup and is now hosting the Festival of Pacific Arts, which just had the most remarkable opening last night, it really says a lot about where this country’s come and how well it’s doing.
I think that’s an enormous credit to the people of Solomon Islands and it’s an enormous credit to the Solomon Islands Government. That was the main message I wanted to convey to Gordon Darcy Lilo yesterday and I think it was a message well received. He, too, had a sense of enormous pride about how much has been achieved in this country in less than a decade.
NASYA BAHFEN: Do you think there’s a sense then that RAMSI has completed its mandate quite successfully, and now has no sort of pressing reason to continue?
RICHARD MARLES: No, I wouldn't say that. There’s still more work for RAMSI to do. I think that is acknowledged by everyone, by the Solomon Islands Government, the Pacific Islands Forum and the member states of the forum, the Australian Government and the RAMSI mission itself. The real priority for RAMSI is unquestionably to continue to work with the police. We need to ensure that all the time that’s needed is taken to get the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force into a state where it can be the guarantor of security within the Solomon Islands.
There is still work to be done on that although there’s been enormous progress made with the police over the last nine years.
In other areas there has been considerable progress. We've made it clear that in terms of security, law and order, it’s no longer the case that the military present here is really the guarantor of security, that really has already effectively been transferred to the police.
With that in mind we have made it clear that the military will likely withdraw in the second half of next year. I think there is a sense of comfort about that here as an appropriate timing for that moment.
NASYA BAHFEN: So will RAMSI retain a civilian sort of presence in Solomon Islands for now?
RICHARD MARLES: It will for now. But the civilian presence in terms of the development assistance side of the program will largely transfer to bilateral aid programs over the next couple of years. What will continue beyond that will be the engagement with the police, which is the civil component as well. I think that does have a longer-term involvement. There is more work to be done there and it’s everyone’s view that that’s where the focus of efforts needs to be.
What will come to an end in the second half of next year is the military component.
NASYA BAHFEN: Now one of the other areas of possible cooperation between Australia and Solomon Islands - you mentioned empowering women in the Pacific. Realistically the problems of women in the Pacific, they're a bit off the radar for most Australians.
RICHARD MARLES: Increasingly we are getting the issue on the radar, not just among Australians, but more importantly here in the Pacific. I've met a lot of very impressive women who do incredible work in the Pacific. There is a burgeoning women’s voice in the Pacific and we need to see expression given to that. We are keen to work closely with the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands and ourselves are both on the board of UN Women, in a sense representing the region. So I think there is a leadership role that the two countries can play in promoting women’s issues not just within our countries but throughout the Pacific. Women’s empowerment and particularly the role of women in politics has been a very significant topic of conversation over the last 12 months. We've seen attempts made to put in a statutory minimum number of women in the PNG Parliament.
There’s been a similar debate in Samoa.
There is a debate going on here in Solomon Islands as well as there are in other countries in the Pacific. So it is an issue which is growing and that’s important.
NASYA BAHFEN: Finally can you tell us what Prime Minister Lilo says about Australia’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council?
RICHARD MARLES: Well the Prime Minister was very supportive of our bid. And we're very grateful for that support as we have been grateful for the support that’s come from all the countries of the Pacific. Our bid has been endorsed by the Pacific Islands Forum over the last few forum meetings. That, I think, is very important, because we don't see ourselves simply as just being about Australia getting on with Security Council. If we're ultimately successful, we absolutely see that our bid is very much one representing the region.
That was a message that we wanted to make clear to the Prime Minister, that we do see ourselves as regional representatives if, ultimately, we are successful. I think that was a view which was understood and very much supported.
So we enjoy Solomon Islands' support as we do with the other countries in the Pacific and we're very grateful for it.
We're getting to the closing stages, of course, of this campaign. The election for the Security Council will occur in October this year and we're not taking anything for granted and just as humbly as we can we are putting forward Australia’s case.
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