Statement by Hon Patteson Oti, Minister of Foreign Affairs & External Trade on the Diplomatic Impasse between Solomon Islands and Australia, Under Order 24 of the Parliamentary Standing Orders, on the occasion of the Eighth Parliament – First Session – Second Meeting, 3 October 2006

 

Hon OTI:  Thank you, Mr Speaker, and thank you for the opportunity to make issue statement on behalf of the government, under Order 24 of the Parliamentary Standing Orders.

            Mr Speaker, at the outset I would like to take this opportunity to thank those in Solomon Islands, more so particularly abroad, those who have stated privately in support of actions the Solomon Islands has taken.

            Sir, at the outset, I wish to stress and remind us, that this Honorable House is not only the highest law and decisionmaking body in this land, but is also a symbol of the sovereignty of our people and country, Solomon Islands.  All Members of Parliament are therefore duty bound to uphold, cherish and defend this sovereignty.

            Sir, it is the government’s conviction that our people be appropriately informed through this House about what transpired over the last few weeks in regard to the bilateral relations between Solomon Islands and Australia, in particular what is now seem to be a diplomatic stand-off between the two countries, following the expulsion of Australia’s High Commissioner to Solomon Islands on the 12th September 2006.

            Mr Speaker, respect for state sovereignty is the cornerstone and the basis of international relations.  This is a fundamental principle that sovereign states and governments, whether large or small or weak, uphold in conducting their diplomatic and bilateral relations.  It is also a conventional practice and norm that diplomats are at least expected not to interfere in the domestic affairs of their host states.  While they pursue their countries’ interests in the receiving state, they should not undermine the policies of the host government.  One must demonstrate mutual respect and understanding.  Sir, the expelled High Commissioner, in the judgment of the government violated these norms and practices, hence was declared persona non grata on the 12th September 2006.

            Mr Speaker, declaring a diplomat persona non grata is of course a very serious matter in diplomacy, hence Australia’s strong disappointment and anger over the action taken by Solomon Islands.  However, Mr Speaker, the government firmly believes that it took the right action.  The former Australian High Commissioner blatantly undermined the policies and initiatives of the Sovereign Government of Solomon Islands.  He was expelled because he supposedly was campaigning against the Government’s Commission of Inquiry established to investigate the April 18 riots, contrary Mr Speaker, to claims publicly advanced by Australia wherein it was said that the High Commissioner was declared persona non grata because he (the former High Commissioner) was talking to the Leader and Offices of the Leader of Opposition.  Mr Speaker, that is not the reason for his expulsion.

            Mr Speaker, as Minister responsible for Foreign Affairs and as a matter of duty within the portfolio I am in charge of, I feel obliged to inform Parliament and only through Parliament, not the media and the people of Solomon Islands the events culminating in the expulsion of the former High Commissioner on the 12 September 2006.

            Mr Speaker, prior to taking the decision to expel the High Commissioner, the Prime Minister of Solomon islands telephoned on 11th September, courteously requesting his Australian Counterpart to recall the High Commissioner.  The Prime Minister of Australia Mr Speaker, blatantly refused to do so.  Our Prime Minister henceforth has no choice but to declare the High Commissioner persona non grata in accordance with Article 9 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic and Consular Relations which are quite in order.  The events, I have just relayed to you, happened in just two days – 11th and 12th September 2006.

            Sir, it is now common knowledge that Australia has taken retaliatory action by immediately canceling Australian multiple entry visas issued to all Members of parliament, pursuant to section 1278 of the Australian Migration Act 1958, and other subsequent enabling subsidiary legislations currently in force in the Commonwealth of Australia.  I have my letter here dated 21st September 2006 where I was informed that my visa has been cancelled within the provisions of the relevant laws of Australia, and I am sure other Members of Parliament who have Australian visas might have also been issued the same letter.  I have replied the letter and said thank you very much.  I acknowledged the letter and I appreciate and I comply with the laws of Australia.  I have no qualms about it.

            Mr Speaker, Australia has also threatened to further punish Solomon Islands in the international arena, and indeed this is continuing.  Sir, the detention that was questioned this morning of the recently appointed Attorney-General last Friday in Port Moresby on his way to Honiara, is again read by the Government of Solomon Islands as Australia’s efforts to undermine the decisions of the Sovereign Government of Solomon Islands.  The fact that the person in question was exonerated from all charges in the Republic Vanuatu about 10 or so years ago, has been traveling to Australia since he was discharged, without incident is a clear indication of what I would like to call ‘political persecution’ by Australia aimed at the Government of Solomon Islands for its appointment of the individual as Attorney General.

            Mr Speaker, it has also become common knowledge as was alluded to earlier by the Prime Minister that Australia has also smeared the standing of one of its own retired judges when that person was appointed to chair the Commission of Inquiry to look into the April 18 riots.

            Mr Speaker, what we need to be consciously aware of is that Australia’s actions to these cases are deliberately targeting and painting a negative image of the Government of Solomon Islands.

            Mr Speaker, while in New York two weeks ago for the 61st Session of the General Assembly, the Prime Minister and myself took the opportunity, in fact we had appointments lined out particularly because of what transpired here in September, to meet with a number of leaders including the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea who is the current Chair of the Forum, the Foreign Minister of Australia, which I met personally, the Foreign Affairs of New Zealand which I met personally, the Foreign Minister of Fiji, and of course the Prime Minister had an audience with the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Vanuatu.  The Secretary General of the Commonwealth, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific, and lastly but not the least the United Nations Under Secretary for Political Affairs.  We took this opportunity to explain the Solomon Islands position on the apparent divide between Australia and Solomon Islands.  The Australian Foreign Minister drowned in his anger took the opportunity to label all political leaders in Solomon Islands including those who have already passed away as corrupt.  Might I also add that my colleague and Australian counterpart, in my view demonstrated a lack of respect and accused us of not showing the Pacific Way when we expelled his country’s principle representative.  However, Mr Speaker, I very much regretted to have observed the demeaning of the much talked about “Pacific Way” by those less qualified to discuss what the “Pacific Way” might have meant in essence to Pacific indigenes.

            Mr Speaker, it is important that Solomon Islands maintains a consistent and clear position.  The Government has adopted a position on the matter, including charting a possible way forward.  The point of contention here is basically the terms of reference of the Commission of Inquiry.

            In this regard, Australia as we all know, has been actively campaigning against the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry, particularly those paragraphs which relate to the case of the two Members of Parliament who are in custody.  It has been heard before the courts of high court of Solomon Islands and cleared by the way.

            Mr Speaker, a Commission of Inquiry is a normal mechanism established under the laws of Solomon Islands, laws of this Parliament to investigate the circumstances surrounding a particular event or situation.  As far as this Government is concerned, the establishment of the Commission is not only for the sake of transparency and accountability, the very same principles that members of the international community including Australia have been preaching about, but also as part of its genuine efforts to address the root causes of the riots and the recent ethnic tension, thus enhancing long term peace and stability in this country.  We need to address the root causes of these events if we are to ensure sustainable peace, stability and development in our country.

            Sir, it is in our national interest to proceed with the Commission, a point reiterated by His Excellency, the Governor-General in his speech to Parliament yesterday.  In this regard, the Government welcomes and accepts the offer by the Government of Papua New Guinea to provide a Chairman and a member of the Commission.  It is the Government’s hope that the findings of the Commission will not only shed light on the events of April 18, but also assist the government in initiating the necessary measures to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.

            Mr Speaker, the current diplomatic impasse is primarily a bilateral matter between Solomon Islands and Australia.  It should not be linked to RAMSI.  We must avoid dragging RAMSI into the debate since RAMSI is a regional initiative under the auspices of the Forum’s Biketawa Declaration. 

Closely analysed, the stand-off is more to do with the conduct of Australia’s principle representative (the former one) than the overall relations between the two countries, let alone the wider Pacific region.  (We hope would not be drawn into the cobweb).  Australia however, has been standing firm behind the conduct of its former High Commissioner and considers the action taken by Solomon Islands as a big slap on the bilateral relations between the two countries.

            Furthermore Mr Speaker, Australia seems to have brought RAMSI into the stand-off and threatened that any moves by the Solomon Islands Government to redirect RAMSI will lead to the disintegration of RAMSI.  The Australian Government has openly criticized Solomon Islands for failing to acknowledge its 800 million Australian dollars assistance to Solomon Islands under RAMSI.  While we recognize and acknowledge RAMSI’s contribution to restoring law and order in the country, it would be interesting to know how much of the 800 million is actually spent in this country.  But I guess Mr Speaker, we cannot expect to have our cake and eat it, as far as Australia is concerned.

            Mr Speaker, as the main financier of RAMSI, Australia will continue to use RAMSI in its dealings with Solomon Islands.  It is becoming difficult to differentiate between Australia’s traditional bilateral assistance program through AUSAid in Solomon Islands and Australia’s contribution to RAMSI in this country.  The bilateral package should not be tied to Australia’s contribution to RAMSI and vice versa.  There needs to be a clear demarcation between the two.  It must be noted that RAMSI is a partnership between the Forum Island Countries and Solomon Islands, and it must remain so.  The fact that a particular country pays for most of RAMSI’s operations should not be a license to do whatever it wants to do with RAMSI.  At least, this is the view of the Solomon Islands Government.

            Mr Speaker, the Pacific Islands Forum through the Forum Chair, in our view, must now take charge of the overall monitoring and supervision of RAMSI and coordinate any discussions and dialogue concerning the future of RAMSI.  It is the position of the present Government that Solomon Islands and Australia should not discuss RAMSI matters directly but it must be done so through the Forum and its chair.

            Mr Speaker, the review of RAMSI must also determine whether RAMSI is operating on the basis and principles of the Biketawa Declaration.  If it is not, then RAMSI could lose its regional nature, which would be most regrettable and hence the answer to the question of whose interests it really serves becomes more obvious. 

Sir, the Government will be raising this issue at the upcoming Forum Leaders Summit in Fiji later this month, in particular the need for an independent body to review the operations of RAMSI, with a view to strengthening RAMSI and in order for the people of Solomon Islands to sustain their trust and confidence in RAMSI.

            Sir, in my meeting with the UN authorities in New York, two weeks ago, I stressed the need for the international community in particular UN agencies and UNDP in particular to take a proactive role in implementing some of the development related aspects of RAMSI.  Indeed, Mr Speaker, the UNDP Council approved the upgrading of the UNDP sub-office in Honiara to country level status in 2007 last month.  We hope this initiative will see more the United Nations involvement in our rebuilding and development endeavours.

            Sir, moreover, Solomon Islands needs to explore and utilize the opportunities under South-South Cooperation, and that is cooperation between developing countries.  That is working closely with other developing countries, as I said.  The government in this regard is in the process of exploring, I repeat, in the process of exploring a number of technical cooperation framework agreements with developing countries including South Africa, India, Cuba, and we are in the place of concluding one with the Republic of China in Taiwan.  Mr Speaker, these would complement the existing cooperation and support we derive from our traditional development partners including Australia.

            Mr Speaker, the Government is now prepared to enter into dialogue with Australia to find an amicable solution to the current diplomatic impasse.  The expulsion of the former High Commissioner, in our view should now be a non-issue.  The Government is prepared to consider Australia’s replacement for the previous one and hope that he or she would demonstrate a better sense of understanding and mutual respect including respect for the principles of non-interference in the domestic affairs of Solomon Islands or any sovereign state for that matter.

            In looking for a way forward, Mr Speaker, the government is now engaging the kind support and services of officials from MSG countries as a “go between” for Australia and Solomon Islands with a set of options which they will be putting to Canberra this Friday for its consideration.  We will await Canberra’s response before engaging in further dialogue.  We hope the issue will be resolved prior to the Leaders Summit in Fiji later this month so that both countries (Australia and Solomon Islands) can rebuild their relations based on mutual understanding and respect for each other’s sovereignty.

            Finally, but not the least, Mr Speaker, later this week we will be debating the motion by the Leader of the Opposition on no confidence on the government.  In debating the motion and I am not debating the motion now, I am just reminding us before that motion comes that in casting our votes, we must do so based on our sound judgement of what is best for this country. 

The current diplomatic stand-off should not be used as a factor in influencing ones position or vote.  The stand-off is basically a tug of war on sovereignty.  It is about a so called fragile and weak state reminding a big and powerful neighbour to observe and uphold the principles of respect and non interference in the domestic affairs of another state or government. 

This Parliament, Mr Speaker, as I have said must remain a symbol of our country’s sovereignty and we should be proud and passionate in defending this sovereignty including defending it from outside influences and interferences.  The onus is on every one of us to make the right decision, and the right decision is to support a government that is working diligently against all odds to maintain its sovereign rights including shaping the destiny of its people and future generations.

            I thank you Mr Speaker sir.