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Australia's 'regional sheriff' policy
By Paulo Gorjao

Recent 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 meant?

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 (East Timor).

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.

Yet, 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.

In 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 formed.

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.

In 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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Nov 6, 2003

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