Big lessons learnt from small conflicts

By Greg Ansley

Australian peacekeeping soldiers walk through the smoke from an entire block of burning homes in East Timor. Photo / AP.
Australian peacekeeping soldiers walk through the smoke from an entire block of burning homes in East Timor. Photo / AP.

Study of peacekeeping record in Bougainville, East Timor and the Solomons gives valuable insights.

Almost a quarter of a century since Bougainville collapsed into violence that would kill more than 1000 islanders and force tens of thousands more from their homes, New Zealand and Australian troops are preparing to deploy to Papua New Guinea.

The deployment, to provide logistics for the troubled nation's general election this month, follows the long and painful evolution of a new stabilising force in the South Pacific that has been refined through East Timor, the Solomons and continuing diplomacy.

While Australia and New Zealand provide most of the money and muscle, the process depends on the involvement of the smallest states and an increasing ability to link regional efforts with wider international missions.

The key is for the Pacific to look after itself. For Australia's part, it has also forced the recognition that size isn't everything.

"Australia recognises that its personnel rarely match the cultural skills, understanding of context and appropriateness of approach of our Pacific Island partners in regional settings," a new study of peacekeeping in the region says. Partnering for Peace, examining the lessons of Bougainville, East Timor and the Solomons, was produced by the Australian Civil-Military Centre, established four years ago to study the blend of military, police, government, diplomatic and aid agencies needed to deal with failing states.

But while civilians are as important as troops, massive investment is still needed in military hardware to fly and ship in soldiers, police, medical and other teams, and the tonnes of equipment they need.

Australia is spending billions on two 27,500-tonne amphibious ships the size of small aircraft carriers and its new fleet of six C-17 Globemaster aircraft to back its existing capabilities. HMNZS Canterbury and RNZAF Hercules and helicopters are also important assets for regional peacekeeping and disaster relief, integrated with Australia through the Anzac ready response force.

And even when immediate crises ease, the work goes on. Partnering for Peace notes that despite the end of conflict, the restoration of government control and services and growing economic recovery, problems continued in the region's flashpoints.

In Bougainville tensions remain over continuing divisions and unresolved disputes, with localised armed conflict in the island's south involving 10 to 12 small armed groups and causing more than 150 deaths since 2005.

The study says small and light weapons remain a threat, used in armed roadblocks, crime and trade with other parts of PNG as well as local battles.

In East Timor violence erupted in 2006 after the sacking of 600 soldiers, crushing law and order in the capital of Dili, killing almost 40 people and displacing 150,000 others.

Two years later, amid other occasional spikes in violence, another crisis erupted with attacks on then President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

Violence between gangs and martial arts groups "remains a primary source of insecurity".

But with New Zealand Australia planning to bring their remaining troops home from East Timor and the Solomons, the gains have been clear.

The study says Bougainville's 10-year civil war between the central government and separatist groups launched a new process that saw the emergence of "determined regional co-operation", initially between Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu but later expanding to all 16 member states of the Pacific Islands Forum in the Solomons.

"These regional initiatives strengthened the sense among states of the region that their security was indivisible," the study says.

The concept was formalised in the Forum's 2000 Biketawa Declaration, the framework for co-ordinating responses to regional crises that enabled the mobilisation of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (Ramsi).

The study says that as well as pooling different skills and boosting the legitimacy of the mission in the Solomons, Ramsi also promoted a network of contacts across the Pacific and the development of peacekeeping capacity within the region.

It says Bougainville and the Solomons made good use of the island states' cultural affinity, language and communication skills and an understanding of the local context, backed by the larger resources of Australia and New Zealand.

Ramsi also boosted training and skills among regional police and military forces, increased their ability to operate in new environments, built regional relationships for future missions, and helped standardise operating doctrine.

"The next step in deepening regional co-operation and preparedness would be to strengthen joint exercises in the Pacific Islands region, involving civilian, police and military personnel," the study says.

Bougainville and East Timor also showed the value of using existing regional relationships to work with multinational operations.

And troubled states are themselves becoming peacekeepers: East Timor has sent police and troops to United Nations missions in Kosovo, Guinea-Bissau, Lebanon and South Sudan; PNG has peacekeepers in Dafur and South Sudan; and the Solomons may send police on UN missions.

The study says the crises faced by the three countries taught valuable lessons. It said missions needed to be "owned" by the countries involved, with support tailored to local priorities, and rebuilding capacity must start early and last well beyond immediate missions, requiring long-term commitments of financial, political and human aid delivered at a pace the country can absorb.

- NZ Herald

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