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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19216

Mr CIOBO (2:08 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. With the gun amnesty due to expire in the Solomon Islands at midnight tonight, would the minister update the House on the progress of the Australian led regional assistance mission?

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the honourable member for Moncrieff for the interest he shows in Operation Helpem Fren, the Australian led operation to help restore law and order and economic prosperity in the Solomon Islands. The weapons amnesty which was imposed after the arrival of the intervention force comes to an end at midnight tonight. The leaders of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands expect that over 3,000 weapons will have been collected by the conclusion of the amnesty at midnight tonight. Final details are going to take a few days to complete, given the very large number of weapons that have been collected. Latest reports indicate that well over 300 of these weapons were high-powered ex-police guns. Other weapons collected include light machine guns, grenade launchers and numerous shotguns, rifles and hand guns. Also, interestingly, 300,000 rounds of ammunition have been collected.

Many weapon handovers have been accompanied by community peace ceremonies and on-the-spot destruction of weapons. This means that these terrible weapons are no longer a threat to the lives of ordinary Solomon Islanders. After a very few weeks, I think it has to be accepted that the intervention force has been enormously successful in taking a very large number of guns out of the Solomon Islands. Every day during the amnesty weapons were handed in, but we have to understand that from tonight there will be no amnesty and accept that, nevertheless, there will still be some guns out there in the Solomon Islands. The regional assistance mission will be going after those guns, and people found with those guns will have to face the Solomon Islands justice system. I have great confidence that the regional assistance mission will be able to find those weapons, because it is able to use advanced technology, sophisticated and well-trained police and other resources. It is also able to get the assistance of the local community to find, take and ultimately destroy the weapons.

Work on one of the very central issues that we have to address—budget stabilisation—has now commenced in earnest. Senior public servants are able to work properly in ministries like the finance department because they are no longer subject to harassment or intimidation from gunmen in the community. Australian experts are now taking up in-line positions to assist the rebuilding of the government administration. Our immediate priorities are to ensure that public servants such as schoolteachers get paid on time and that government departments can deliver basic services such as health to the people of the Solomon Islands. Australia can be well proud of the role we have played in leading the regional intervention force, and we should pay great tribute to those who are in that force for the excellent work they have done so far.