Kiwi cops play an increasingly important role in our foreign policy. They are working alongside diplomats, aid workers and peacekeepers in Afghanistan, Timor Leste, Bougainville (in PNG), Tonga, and in the Solomon Islands.
I was in the Solomons recently in a UN election observer team and caught up with some of the 35 New Zealanders deployed there on six month stints. They are part of a bold experiment in post-conflict state building, helping the Solomons get back on its feet after years of civil conflict.
Keeping citizens safe is the first duty of the state but in 1999-2003 things went bad in the Solomons. Ethnic tensions turned violent and the local police force splintered along ethnic lines with some personnel joining in the fighting. RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, was deployed in 2003 with police and defence personnel from NZ, Australia and other Pacific nations charged with getting rid of the guns and keeping the peace.
The police-led mission was remarkably successful at restoring order. However the regional aid effort has found it more difficult to make progress in getting the economy growing or strengthening government. As well as contributing police, New Zealand is leading an excellent multi-donor aid programme helping rebuild the country’s primary education system.
The regional mission is unusual: invited in by the Solomon Islands Parliament but exercising an extraordinary level of influence on the government with foreign advisers in key line ministries. Few people in the Solomons, locals or expats, think RAMSI could pull out tomorrow without the country facing problems. Yet Solomon Islanders rightly want to control their own destiny, and the donors don’t want to keep pouring such large amounts of aid in indefinitely.
Meanwhile on the streets of Honiara, Kiwi police are backing up the local police, advising mostly and taking action when needed. The Kiwis I spoke to were up for the job and full of sympathy for their counterparts but told me how lack of basic equipment makes it difficult for Solomon Islands police to do their job. How would you feel being asked to sort out crime incidents without vehicles, boats, radios, truncheons or handcuffs?
I saw RAMSI police on the streets of Honiara, and on the outer islands. I was impressed by the way they went about their work and got on with the local community. The Solomons faces hard development challenges and it is not clear how soon its regional partners will be able to withdraw with confidence. In the mean time our police are great ambassadors and helping deliver what Solomon Islanders want most: peace and security.