A closing year’s observations and commentary

Dear Editor,

Please consider this letter.

Yours sincerely,

Frank Short

As 2021 ebbs to its close and soon there will emerge a new dawn at the start of 2022, I would like to say a few words before the year ends on aspects of developments in 2021 and some concerns going forward.

The first comment I would make would be words of praise for the government in its handling of the Covid pandemic and for keeping the virus threat off the nation’s shores.  Coupled with praise for the government I would add my thanks to all the diplomatic partners and international agencies that rallied together with help in kind, with finance and vital equipment to underpin to support the government’s Covid preventative strategic planning.

Now a new strain of Covid has emerged. Omicon, and while not considered as deadly as the Delta variant has proven to be, scientists around the world are racing to establish just how worried we should be about it because the ability of Omicron to infect people who have had both doses of the vaccine is significantly higher than for Delta.

The WHO director general has admitted that the Omnicon variant could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic and that it should not be underestimated.

Already in New Zealand, Covid modeling experts have warned the highly transferable Omnicon variant poses a  serious risk to a largely unrestricted summer.

Thirteen cases of the variant have now been picked up in managed isolation and quarantine.

The first one was on Thursday, then another on Friday, then three more were announced, then four more, then yesterday five further cases of Omicron were notified by the Ministry of Health. The cases are in MIQ in Auckland and Christchurch.

More cases would keep arriving at the border, increasing the chance one would leak out into the community, Te Pūnaha Matatini complex systems researcher Dr Dion O’Neale said.

“At the moment most of those [MIQ] infections will be Omicron from now on, purely because Omicron is most of the cases in countries that people are coming back to New Zealand.

Two weeks ago the Australian state of NSW  had around 200 cases a day, while on Sunday it recorded 2558. The state’s health authorities believe most of the cases are Omicron.

The Solomon Islands government will need to keep up its tight controls on preventing Covid gaining a foothold in the country, as well as continuing its education programme on vaccinations and its roll-out steps.

As the year ends the country is mired once again in political situation that recently resulted in civil disorder, including property damage, rioting, arson and wide scale looting in Honiara.

Today, the cost of damage to the BSP Branch in Honiara is estimated to be SBD$17.3 million.

China has accused what it calls forces with ulterior motives of inciting last month’s riots in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara.

Whatever the truth of the recent riots, an editorial piece in today’s  Solomon Times Online had this to say, and I quote.

The current political impasse between the government, the opposition group and Suidani’s provincial government requires an indigenous solution. But which indigenous solution?

Of course, the courts are there should one want to test the validity of certain decisions or actions. The police are also there, should one want to file a complaint against the other for alleged wrong doings. The church is also there, should one want some spiritual guidance or redemption from one’s sin or sins.

But than there is the indigenous approach or solution. It is called a solution because our societies were intact hundreds of years before we adopted these new systems of governance. So, whatever it was, it seemed to work. When all else fail, unfortunately, people often resort to violence – but this is not unique to Solomon Islands – it is a human problem, our territorial and survival instincts kick in when our backs are against the wall.

The codes that guided our chiefs and traditional leaders predate all the systems that we currently have. So, can we look back at our past and find an indigenous solution? But the question than becomes which indigenous solution?

The current impasse involves leaders from different linguistic groups – linguistic is used here because being from the same island or ethnic group does not necessarily mean their indigenous systems are the same. So, since there is no uniform indigenous system, is an indigenous approach possible? Long answer short, yes!

Despite the differences in approach, there are several features they all share. First, there needs to be cease in hostility or violence – often brokered by a third party. Second, mediation takes place between the groups, often by a third party, seeking to establish areas of common ground and disagreements. Third, a neutral venue is used for initial dialogue, focusing on areas of disagreement. Fourth, further dialogue with the wider group to establish whether reconciliation is possible. If possible, reconciliation is arranged, often involves a ceremony or an exchange of traditional peace symbols. If not possible, the process is repeated.

When all else fails, than we know what is in store for us as a country. 

Personally, I think the advice about pursuing an indigenous approach to the current political impasse worthy of consideration, but it is the very last sentence of the Editorial piece with its implied message that bothers me and leads me back to my earlier letter about the proposal to equip the RSIPF’ with the lethal M4/M4A1 5.56mm Carbine a lightweight, gas operated, air cooled, magazine fed, selective rate, shoulder fired weapon with a collapsible stock and the standard issue firearm for most units in the U.S. military.

Let me say, from the onset of this secondary aspect of my letter today that the state (Solomon Islands) is mandated by its Constitution to preserve and protects its status, and the police service being one of the organs of the state is mandated to protect life and property.

Generally every individual enjoys a fundamental human rights which is enshrined in almost every constitution which includes the right or freedom to life and to own property and the right to assemble peacefully and without arms. The right pf assembly is subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of state sovereignty and the integrity of Solomon Islands and public order.

Last week in a letter of mine, I wrote.

Quote.

The police have a duty to facilitate citizens exercising their fundamental right of public assembly. At the same time, living in democracy requires the observance of certain rules, to allow the State to discharge its responsibility of maintaining peace and security for everyone at all times.

 There is always the possibility that a public rally will become unruly (and there is past proof of such happenings in the Solomon Islands) which can mean damage to life and property. This is when a public assembly becomes unlawful which is defined in the SI Penal Code. Under such circumstances, the police are permitted to disperse the crowd to prevent injuries or damage. This may entail the use of force in a controlled and specified manner.

 The principle governing the use of force as explained in the law and in all police procedures remains constant:  Force should only be used when it is absolutely necessary, it should be minimum and proportional to the situation and its use should be discontinued as soon as the danger to life and property subsides.

The Police Code of Conduct,  (which I drafted in 1997 and laid out in Standing Orders, as far as practicable, requires methods of persuasion, advice and warning.  If however, the use of force becomes unavoidable then only the irreducible minimum force required in the circumstances should be used.

 Use of force can only be resorted to if an unlawful assembly or an assembly of five or more people (likely to disturb public peace) does not disperse on being ordered to or shows a determination not to disperse.

As a responsible member of the international community, the Solomon Islands is bound by United Nations standards, which are the basis of many of SI laws and regulations.

To reiterate, the UN Basic Principles state that the use of force in dispersing non-violent unlawful assemblies should be avoided and if that is not possible, then minimum force should be used.

End of quote.

At the onset of the period we now know of the “Tensions” armed militants known commonly as the GRA broke into an isolated police station armoury in late 1998, attacked the sole police officer on duty and stole the rifles and ammunition in the station’s armoury.

The same group of militants then armed with the stolen police weapons tried a similar surprise raid on another police station by sailing to Bungana islands where a police party intercepted them and a shootout occurred, leading to the capture of the militants and their subsequent detention in police custody in Honiara.

What occurred following their brief period in custody in well documented, both in the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Report and in my own published book, ‘Policing a clash of cultures, ‘and remains clear in the memories of victims that subsequently befell the crimes committed by the militants and their followers.

In 1998 there was the same duty on the police to protect the state and its citizens as exists today. 

In 1998, however the then SIPF consisted of only 700 policemen and police women, a much depleted establishment and handicapped by a gross deficiency in equipment, transport, communications and denied the outside intervention we saw when RAMSI first intervened, and indeed denied even the short-term military and police support seen in recent days.

The activities of the GRA and Guadalcanal Liberation militants focused on hit and run attacks on communities, facilities and key points, tactics which the small numbers of police, lacking transport could not contain, although patrols by police did respond to incident reports but invariably came under attack with firearms.

The militants, both the GRA and the GLF, had stock piles of old WW11 weapons and ammunition in hidden locations, with supporters attacking as scouts to warn of the presence of police patrols.

I mention this history of events in my time in office (1997 to mid-1999) as a means of illustrating how the recent civil protests involving protestors and the ensuing violence and crime contrasts.

The protests that spread over three days in Honiara was believed to have been politically inspired but the unarmed protestors turned to violence when allegedly provoked by the RSIPF firing tear gas, but a factor still to be substantiated.

In the demonstration of the new but lethal firearm to be issued to the police, the AFP and ADF instructors and advisors gave advice on the M4 carbine and on the procedural steps to be followed when dealing with outbreaks of public disorder.

The procedural steps would be phased, as follows

The display of a banner warning to the protestors to disperse, failing which the protestors could be fired on and presumably firstly by using weapons of minimum force (although the precise weapons of minimum force have not been made known to-date.

If the protestors are not dispersed by using weapons of minimum force, then one has to assume the police could fire on them with the M4 carbine but trying to minimise injuries by aiming at the legs or arms, but not the head.

In carrying out their orders to contain protestors in protection of life, property and the state, the police could set off a chain of occurrences that could very well see what started as street protests with unarmed civilians turn ugly with the style of hit and run tactics of the past.

The decisions weighing on the government over its clear mandate to protect the state, its citizens, property and institutions, and reputation, must be weighing heavily on the members of the administration, amidst ongoing political concerns and one hopes clear heads and wise decisions will be made both about the possibility of the indigenous approach to dialogue and the acquisition of lethal weapons of last resort.

If the M4 carbine is acquired then all such weapons must be securely confined in restricted armory premises according to laid down specifications and intentional guidelines on safekeeping.

Personnel of the RSIPF that might be issued with proposed M4 carbine must be thoroughly trained in its operation and use and Standing Orders written and available setting out the strict rules to be followed with the emphasis on minimum force in all responses to public order deployment and operations.

Yours sincerely

Frank Short