Solomon Islands police to be rearmed ahead of RAMSI withdrawal – ABC Online

Updated March 09, 2017 20:37:31

Nearly two decades after ethnic violence gripped the Solomon Islands and the country’s police force failed to maintain law and order, the government is approving the rearmament of the small number of police officers.

The Commissioner of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force Matthew Varley said officers with the police response team and close personal protection team would soon be armed.

“These are the officers that provide ready response to high risk situations and also provide protection to our dignitaries and foreign officials,” he said.

“Those are the only areas to be rearmed under this program. By and large the remainder of the Solomon Islands police force remains unarmed.”

Rearmament became a sensitive subject in Solomon Islands after the police force’s impartiality broke down during the five-year period of ethnic violence known as The Tensions.

Some officers became participants in the conflict.

The police armoury in the capital Honiara was raided and the stolen weapons fuelled the fighting.

An Australian-donated police patrol boat was even used to strafe villages with machine gun fire.

Commissioner Varley acknowledged there was still unease in the community at the prospect of police having access to firearms again.

“History shows Solomon Islands people are quite concerned about this program and are watching us closely,” he said.

“We’re mindful of some of the tensions that occurred many years ago when former police weapons were actually stolen and misused and for that reason the rearmament is quite limited in its scope.”

In 2003 the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, RAMSI, arrived to restore peace and rebuild the country.

RAMSI is withdrawing in the middle of the year and the 100 foreign police officers that are currently in the country will also depart.

The head of RAMSI, special coordinator Quentin Devlin, said the limited rearmament of the police would be a significant milestone in the country’s recovery from The Tensions.

“I think the staged and limited rearmament of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force is the last major piece in the rebuilding of the police force before RAMSI can leave,” he said.

RAMSI and the police have been holding information sessions in villages, schools, markets and businesses to explain why the assistance mission is leaving and why the police force is being rearmed.

Mr Devlin said he was often asked by people whether they could trust the police, and he told them yes, they can.

“We point to a range of different things including the strong leadership of the RSIPF, its performance over a number of years now, its strong performance on crime prevention and police discipline and also that the government’s been increasing the resources of the RSIPF over the last couple of years,” he said.

Josephine Teakini from the women’s group Vois Blong Mere said the conduct of police during The Tensions was still fresh in people’s minds despite the passage of time.

“When the tension happened in Solomon Islands the force was also being part of the shootings that were happening. The neutrality of the police force at the time was in question,” she said.

Ms Teakini said while some people were comfortable with the limited rearmament, most would be very concerned if more officers were to be armed.

“What if there’s another tension or something similar to that, what’s going to happen? Will the arms be taken up again and used against community people instead of protecting?” she asked.

Commissioner Varley is trying to reassure people the police force has changed significantly.

“More than two thirds of the RSIPF has been recruited since the tension period,” he said.

“We’ve had heavy investment in training by RAMSI and development over that time.

“The officers that are involved in this limited rearmament program have been trained to the highest standards and I’m pretty confident that those officers are well disciplined and ready to take on that extra responsibility.”

Topics: police, defence-and-national-security, solomon-islands, asia, pacific

First posted March 09, 2017 20:08:24

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Solomon Islands police to be rearmed ahead of RAMSI withdrawal – ABC Online