Problems in the Pacific: Who You Gonna Call?

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It is possible to address threats of conflict in our Oceanic backyard without military might but this doesn’t seem to have occurred to Prime Minister John Howard. His prediction that our “destabilised and failing” Pacific neighbours are likely to descend into further chaos in the next decade was accompanied by his announcement of a $10 billion boost in expenditure on the armed forces. The problem with the Howard government’s strategy is its failure to recognise that maintaining peace requires not only military personnel but also civilian police, experts in conflict resolution, health care and the administration of justice.

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Recently launched in New York, the proposal for a United Nations Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS) is a response to urgent calls within the UN for a rapid-reaction service to prevent violent conflict and address humanitarian problems. UNEPS would respond well to the limitations in our government’s current approach to allegedly failing States in the Pacific.

The service has been designed to have a greater depth and a fuller range of competencies to deal with humanitarian crises than existing UN, regional or national forces possess. This permanent UN service would be comprised of about 12-15,000 carefully selected, expertly trained personnel to conduct multiple functions in diverse UN operations. It would work within a single command structure and be based at UN designated sites, including field headquarters. For the first time in history, a UN agency could be deployed within 48 hours of UN authorisation.

The UNEPS would cost the UN $2 billion to create and less than $1 billion per year to sustain, a bargain for the Australia government and international community. According to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, the international community could have saved $130 billion of the $200 billion spent on managing conflicts in seven major interventions in the 1990s by focusing on conflict prevention rather than post-conflict reconstruction. Yet the Australian government is not thinking about ways to create peace. Instead it will be pouring $10 billion dollars of taxpayers’ money into the military. By contrast, non-violent conflict prevention is amazingly cheap.

There are problems of governance in our region and Prime Minister Howard is not the only one raising alarm bells. Hamish McDonald, Asia-Pacific Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, recently reported that, in addition to East Timor’s current political, economic and humanitarian strife, the region’s four other independent States are also facing serious problems.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Those generating the most media attention are The Solomon Islands and the “inherently unstable” Papua New Guinea (PNG). The Solomon Islands has experienced a five-year ethnic conflict. With the help of the $200 million a year Australian-led operation, RAMSI, it is only slowly recovering from April’s civil and political unrest.

PNG is facing an African-style HIV/AIDS epidemic which forced it in August to declare an emergency in its lawless southern highlands. Its autonomous province, Bougainville, experienced a bloody civil war and is due to hold a referendum on independence as soon as 2014.

While Fiji and Vanuatu attract less media coverage, their governments are fragile, controversial and allegedly corrupt. Fiji is shackled with the same AIDS epidemic as PNG and plagued by religious tensions while Vanuatu’s rule of law is crumbling. McDonald points out that the populations of these countries are “abandoned halfway between tribal custom and the modern economy”.

Lessons of East Timor

While Australia is still heavily involved in East Timor, there are already clear signs of the Howard government’s hubris that UNEPS could have prevented had it been in place. Many East Timorese are beginning to wonder whether the government’s refusal to answer to a UN-led military contingent is just another excuse by a big state to meddle in the political affairs of a country with enormous oil and gas reserves that have been the focus of protracted bilateral negotiations.

Another area of concern with the Australian coalition in East Timor – made up of about 1500 troops and 200 police – is that they are clearly not equipped to enforce the rule of law and support the judicial system. According to fugitive East Timor rebel leader Alfredo Reinaldo – echoed by East Timor’s First Lady Kirsty Sword Gusmao earlier this month -these major grievances have ignited the conflict and kept it burning.

Since UNEPS’ membership has a gender, national and religious balance and would be an international service, it should avoid the sovereignty issues that inevitably occur when a smaller country is occupied by a bigger neighbour. By acting as a “first responder” to protect civilians in times of civil unrest and violent conflict, UNEPS’ purpose is to complement – not replace – other essential national, regional or UN initiatives.

One of the key features of UNEPS is its members’ professional capabilities to provide robust security as well as maintaining or reinstating the rule of law within their sphere of influence. Through disaster relief services it could also deal with urgent health care needs. In some cases, UNEPS may operate according to a “first in-first out” deployment philosophy, in other cases it may continue the deployment of some personnel to contribute to the training and monitoring of police and other law enforcement officials.

“There is one overwhelming argument for the United Nations Emergency Peace Service” says former UN Under-Secretary General Sir Brian Urquhart. “It is desperately needed, and it is needed as soon as possible.” The former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, stresses that a specialized standing service would have been “invaluable” during her UN tenure.

While no international force can guarantee an immediate peace, UNEPS would give the UN the rapid response system it needs. It would also thwart the “dangers of neo-trusteeship” – being perceived as a revived colonial power. For the people in Oceania, and throughout the world, such initiatives cannot come fast enough.

By heeding the spirit and the details of this refreshing UNEPS proposal Australia and others could honour the promise “Never Again” made after the Rwandan genocide. UNEPS stresses the values and skills of non violence. It would prevent conflicts from festering into wars. It would give peace a chance.

The availability of a permanent UN Emergency Peace Service would provide an easy answer to the question “Who You Gonna Call?”

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