Learning from the Bougainville Peace Process: the Path to Define the Region’s Political Future
Liaison Officer for Papua New Guinea, Stephen Liston, outlines the lessons learned from a UN-backed Melanesian peace process.
Located in the waters of the southwest Pacific Ocean, Bougainville is an autonomous region within the island chain of Papua New Guinea. Earlier this summer, Bougainville was the site of resumed discussions between the national government of Papua New Guinea and its own autonomous authorities. The issue tabled was its own political future: whether it would remain a part of the larger nation or become a newly independent state.
Bougainville’s recent history has been marred by conflict. In 1988, fighting broke out, brought on at least in part by disagreements over the operation of the Panguna gold and copper mine, a major source of revenue, but also a source of disastrous pollution.
But the landmark 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement put an end to nearly a decade of fighting between the government forces of Papua New Guinea and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. The Agreement was signed by the parties to the conflict, including the national government of Papua New Guinea and the various Bougainville factions. The United Nations, as well as the governments of Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, witnessed its signing.
Under the terms of the pact, a referendum on Bougainville’s future political status was held in 2019. Between 23 November and 7 December, 181,067 people- 87.4 per cent of registered voters- cast their ballots. The majority voted for independence.
For many Bougainvilleans, the referendum was a cathartic moment. Having lived through the conflict, with many still carrying its physical and psychological scars, the act of voting was an emotional experience.
The referendum is non-binding, and according to the national constitution and the Peace Agreement, two additional post-referendum steps are required: the two governments must consult and agree on the outcome of the referendum, and the national parliament should ratify the final decision.
The two governments held three consultations in 2021, chaired by the UN Resident Coordinator and supported by a Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) Liaison Officer, that resulted in the signing of the Era Kone Covenant in April 2022. The Covenant sets out a timeline for implementation of the arrangements for Bougainville’s political future between 2025–2027 and for the referendum report to be tabled at the National Parliament in 2023.
The path towards peace
Recently, there have been signs of progress. This July, in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, the Agreement’s Joint Supervisory Body — charged with overseeing implementation and resolving disputes — met for the first time in over a year in an attempt to reignite the political process.
The Body, co-chaired by Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape and President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville Ishmale Toroama, decided that the National Minister for Bougainville Affairs, Manaseh Makiba, and the Autonomous Minister for Bougainville Independence Mission Implementation, Ezekiel Masssat, would work together to identify a mutually agreed parliamentary process to serve as the basis of a political solution.
As the parties continue to seek a way forward, the lessons learned and tools developed during the decade-long conflict remain relevant to addressing current challenges. In order to put an end to the conflict, the parties had to muster political will and commitment to a joint process; they built trust between the various communities and factions; they ensured the inclusion and participation of women’s groups, local chiefs, and church leaders; and they worked with the international community.
The role of DPPA in supporting the Bougainville Peace Agreement
The United Nations set up a Political Office in Bougainville (UNPOB) in 1998, which played a critical role in subsequent negotiations. The Office was established through an exchange of letters between the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council.
DPPA has been part of the UN’s support to the peace process from the outset and has assisted multiple activities outlined by the peace agreement, including weapons disposal, the formation of autonomous arrangements, and the conduct of the referendum.
The Organization continues to play the role of convenor, supporting high level political dialogues, including the post referendum consultations by the UN Resident Coordinator (supported by the DPPA Liaison Officer), as well as the most recent meeting of the Joint Supervisory Body. The UN also facilitates dialogues with civil society, women’s groups, human rights defenders and community leaders to advance the Agreement.
As an independent, neutral actor, and the only international organization currently with a Liaison Officer focused on supporting implementation of the Agreement, the UN will continue to play a critical role in connecting the two governments to international expertise and resources.
The Agreement between the parties represents joint ownership of the process and has enabled significant peacebuilding efforts. The UN, including through the work of the Liaison Officer and the Peacebuilding Fund, its agencies in Papua New Guinea and partners will continue to be alongside the two governments on their journey.