Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Solomons: Troops should not go

By Chris Latham

In the lead-up to PM John Howard's announcement that Australia would send troops to the Solomon Islands, the mainstream media was filled with the lurid descriptions of violent criminal gangs terrorising the Solomons' population, and warned of the dangers of the tiny country becoming a terrorist breeding ground. Perhaps unable to see past this propaganda, Australia's parliamentary opposition parties have accepted the need for an intervention, restricting themselves to debating the best framework for implementing it.

It is unfortunate that there is no parliamentary party outright opposing the intervention, as Howard is likely to use it as an opportunity to initiate a more active role through which to assert Australian big business dominance within the South Pacific.

The ALP quickly indicated it was keen to get “bipartisan” support for the intervention. In a statement issued on June 30, Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson, Kevin Rudd, explained that the party's support for the operation would be based on it meeting three criteria: “An invitation from the Solomon Islands government; consensus among the Pacific Islands Forum countries; and an appropriate force composition for this policing action, together with well-defined exit conditions.”

The latter condition is unlikely to be an issue, the second was met on June 30, and the first is likely to be met on July 8. Instead of challenging the intervention, Labor has attempted to “score points” by disagreeing with foreign minister Alexander Downer's argument that the intervention shows that national “sovereignty is not absolute”.

On June 27, Rudd stated that with the “intervention into the Solomon Islands, the question of sovereignty does not arise because the intervention is to be based specifically on the request of a sovereign government in a matter of domestic security”. Rudd's concern is that, if Canberra openly disregards national sovereignty, the same arguments may be used by “great powers within our region against Australia's sovereign interests in the future”.

The Greens have expressed concern at the Australian government intervening in the Solomon Islands without the support of the United Nations. Greens senator Bob Brown was quoted in the June 27 Sydney Morning Herald saying: “Australia risks being seen as a mini-imperial outfit in the South Pacific. That is not something that Australia wants to do.”

However, UN endorsement of Canberra's military intervention would not alter the Solomons' neo-colonial relationship with Australia.

The Solomon Islands, like the rest of the South Pacific island nations, are heavily dependent on Australian aid and trade. In 2001, according to the CIA's World Fact File, the Solomons' government budget revenue as A$58 million — Canberra's aid allocation to the country for 2003-04 was $37.1 million.

According to an AID/Watch June 13 briefing paper, Solomon Islands: Should Australia send a peace keeping force, this aid is contingent on Solomon Islands' commitment and progress in restoring law and order and improving economic management. This is reflected in the growth in governance building to 22% of Australia's aid program, including $17 million over the past four years to Kerry Packer's GRM International to increase the capacity of the Royal Solomon Islands Police.

In sending troops, Canberra intends to make the islands safe for Australian big business investment. A UN-endorsed intervention, which would still be led by Australian troops, would have the same aim, and would reinforce the same dependent relations.

The government and a number of media commentators are tripping over themselves to distance the deployment from the label of colonialism. But that is exactly what it is — and why it must be completely opposed.

Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific's Iggy Kim told Green Left Weekly: “Howard and Downer know that there is a strong opposition, both within Australian and the Asia-Pacific region, to Canberra's economic domination and exploitation of its neighbours. So they're trying to sell the intervention as a `rescue' of the Solomon Islands. We need to be clear — Australia already dominates and exploits the Solomon Islands government. What is changing is that Australia is moving from indirect domination towards direct colonial domination, through controlling the arms and the economy.”

This may not stop at the Solomons. In an address to the Sydney Institute on July 1, Howard commented that the Solomon Islands was “not the only country in the region” that is “at risk of failing”.

Further Australian interference in the islands is unlikely to help — the dependent economic relationship is part of the problem. AID/Watch's Tim O'Connor explained to Green Left Weekly that the communal tension is a direct result of the Australian aid program that is “developing a dual economy between the elites who have access to aid money and the benefits that flow from it such as education and health, and those that do not”.

This is exacerbated when the key objective of Australian aid is to increase the exports of Australian companies. This aid, O'Connor argues, “acts as a boomerang, with an estimated 70% of Australia's aid being tied to specific Australian companies”. This makes the practice of giving aid “simply an elaborate form of corporate welfare. The Australian aid program to the Solomon Islands should be focused primarily on alleviating poverty. This would promote sustainable development and attack the problem of internal conflict directly by addressing the urgent needs of the people”.

From Green Left Weekly issue #545


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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