In June 2000, two-and-a-half weeks after a coup in Fiji, Solomon Islands also experienced an illegal overthrow of government. Tensions had been brewing since late 1998. An uprising on Guadalcanal had resulted in the eviction of around 25,000 settlers from the island of Malaita during 1999. In retaliation, militants formed the Malaita Eagle Forces (MEF) and seized weapons from police armouries.
The coup was a joint operation by the MEF and the heavily Malaitan paramilitary wing of the Royal Solomon Islands Police, the Police Field Force. Efforts to resolve the crisis involved both Australian and New Zealand officials, and culminated in a peace agreement signed at a military base in Townsville, Australia, in October 2000. The Townsville Peace Accord, however, failed to secure a comprehensive surrender of weapons, and fighting continued – though now primarily within, rather than between, the Guadalcanal and Malaitan militia groups.
The Biketawa Declaration was agreed to by leaders at the 2000 Pacific Islands Forum in Kiribati as a framework for responding to regional crises. It was first used to support the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in July 2003. Responding to a request by Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza, 2,225 military and police personnel were deployed, most from Australia and New Zealand, with some from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. Australians filled the RAMSI Special Coordinator position, in each case with a New Zealand deputy.
Most of the militia fighters were arrested, and the bulk of the weapons seized and destroyed. Efforts to reconstruct the Solomon Islands police force and prison service took longer, and RAMSI personnel also became heavily involved in key sectors of the civil service, such as finance and the treasury. New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff’s endorsement of the large military-led RAMSI operation was criticised by some in cabinet, including Prime Minister Helen Clark, who preferred a lower-key approach.
After elections in April 2006, riots broke out in the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara. The Chinatown district was burnt down, and RAMSI personnel and vehicles were targeted. The initial catalyst was a popular reaction to a flawed prime-ministerial selection process. In the face of popular disquiet, new Prime Minister Snyder Rini resigned eight days after his election.
Rini was replaced by Manasseh Sogavare, whose prime ministership was marked by mounting hostility towards RAMSI and Australia. Australian Police Chief Shane Castles and Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole were both expelled. Sogavare lost a no-confidence vote in late 2007, paving the way for an easing of tensions under the 2007–10 government of Derek Sikua. RAMSI's military force was withdrawn in 2013 and its policing role ended in 2017.
Biketawa in Nauru and Tonga
The Biketawa Declaration was also invoked in a regional response to a financial crisis in Nauru in 2004. Australian and New Zealand troops were despatched to Tonga after riots in the capital, Nuku’alofa, in November 2006.