|Australia's 'regional sheriff'
By Paulo Gorjao
talk about Australia's status as the "sheriff" of the
Asia-Pacific region has ruffled plenty of feathers,
especially given the John Howard government's strong
ties with the administration of US President George W
Bush and the doctrine of preemption. But what has
intervention by Canberra in its neighborhood actually
On July 1, during his foreign-policy
address at the Sydney Institute, Prime Minister Howard
signaled that multilateral interventions could take
place in nations other than the Solomon Islands.
According to Canberra, one of the reasons it might be
necessary to do so is that there are several potential
failed states in Australia's back yard, mainly in the
Southwest Pacific but also in Southeast Asia, for
instance Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Timor Leste
The other reason multilateral
interventions might be necessary is the growing security
threat to Australia posed by terrorists, people
smugglers, illegal fishermen, drug traffickers and money
launderers. Therefore, according to Howard, after
Australia's intervention in East Timor in September 1999
and the current intervention in the Solomon Islands,
other multilateral interventions might be necessary to
cope with the threats described above.
although Canberra has shown itself willing to join and
lead multilateral interventions, a first assessment of
Australia's experience in East Timor and in the Solomons
suggests that such interventions are likely to occur
only under certain strict conditions. It is already
clear that a standard operating procedure is emerging
that is likely to be followed if further multilateral
interventions take place in other neighbor states.
The first step to be followed in future
multilateral interventions will be to gain explicit
authorization from the country where the intervention
will take place. Australia refused to intervene in East
Timor without Indonesia's invitation, and the
intervention in the Solomon Islands only took place
after Governor General John Ini Lapli formally asked
Canberra to do so. Barring an extreme situation, the
Howard government will always prefer the path of
authorized multilateral intervention.
contrast with the domestic authorization mentioned
above, explicit international authorization from the
United Nations will not always be sought by Australia.
In 1999, Canberra required a Security Council resolution
to intervene in East Timor. The same did not occur
regarding the intervention in the Solomon Islands.
Indeed, the role of the UN in future
Australian-led multilateral interventions will vary.
During Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's
foreign-policy address last June at the National Press
Club, he made clear (once again) that his approach is
"results oriented". In other words, the UN will be used
as a mechanism to cope with specific issues only when it
is likely to authorize the course of action desired.
According to this post-Iraq-conflict instrumental view -
which Australia's Labor Party does not accept - if the
UN is not willing to authorize a certain course of
action, then ad hoc "coalitions of the willing" will be
The second step to be followed in future
multilateral interventions will be to secure a clear
mandate and robust rules of engagement. In 1999, the UN
Security Council authorized Australia to take all
necessary measures to restore law and order and to
intervene under Chapter VII of the United Nations
Charter. A clear mandate avoids many pitfalls and gives
focus to any intervention. As well, clear rules of
engagement are important in order to allow Australian
personnel to defend themselves. One of the lessons
learned by political and military officials in Australia
from the experience of the UN in Bosnia-Herzegovina
during the 1990s was that vague and weak rules of
engagement are unwelcome.
A clear mandate and
robust rules of engagement, as in the case of East
Timor, are perceived as significantly contributing to
the success of any intervention. Therefore, Australia
also secured a clear mandate and robust rules of
engagement before intervening in the Solomon Islands.
This was the reason Canberra wanted a resolution passed
by the local parliament.
The third step to be
followed in future multilateral interventions will be to
devise an exit strategy. In 1999, in order to intervene
in East Timor, Australia demanded that the multinational
force should be replaced as soon as possible by a UN
peacekeeping operation. For several reasons, Canberra
did not wish to be trapped in a long-term commitment in
Timor. Medium-to-long-term commitments by the Australian
Defense Forces (ADF) are not only costly, they also
threaten to overstretch the troops. For these reasons,
Howard did not wish to be trapped in a long-term police
and military commitment in the Solomons. Thus, as soon
as law and order were restored, Australia started to
scale down its police and military presence.
sum, Australia may well play the role of the regional
sheriff again in the future. But under current policy,
Australian-led multilateral interventions will likely
occur only when explicit authorization, a clear and
robust mandate, and an exit strategy are all guaranteed.
Paulo Gorjao is a senior lecturer at
Lusiada University, Portugal, and editor of the
forthcoming book Double Transition in East Timor:
Consolidation of Sovereignty and Democracy.
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