A new chapter: Bougainville
A new chapter: Bougainville
The Pacific island of Bougainville has suffered from civil war and armed violence in the past. This was put to an end with a peace agreement 20 years ago that led to a referendum in 2019. Release Peace is advocating for the parties in Bougainville to ban weapons from entering the island ever again. We believe that a future free of guns can prevent the days of the past from returning again.
Key Facts about Bougainville:
Bougainville is a beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean. It is one of 600 islands that make up the country of Papua New Guinea (PNG), which lies north of Australia and shares a border with Indonesia. Famed for its stunning nature and sandy beaches, Bougainville also had a conflict-ridden past that cost an estimated 20,000 lives. It held a referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea in 2019, supervised by the UN.
Never heard of Bougainville? This will help you.
Bougainville is a wonderful example of how peace “works”. In the 1990s, the region suffered from a vicious and bloody war of independence. Today, it’s an island of peace. So what happened? In the 1980s, a secessionist movement in Bougainville gained strength and demanded independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG). The movement was fuelled by differences over economic interests and ethnic divisions between Bougainville and the PNG main island. The main actor on the side of the secessionist movement was the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), who took up arms to pursue their cause. Given the many local tribes in Bougainville, the conflict quickly became highly complex as the BRA was mainly made up of one tribe, called Nasioi. As a consequence, many other islanders did not trust the BRA’s intentions and likewise took up arms. This soon led to a fragmentation of the conflict between dozens of different rebel groups. This phenomenon greatly resembles today’s developments in countries such as Libya, Syria and across Africa. Achieving peace in such a complex environment is a momentous challenge. Throughout most of the conflict, the PNG central government dispatched armed police and army units to the island to restore order and bring it back under central government control.
During the 1990s, the conflict is estimated to have cost up to 20,000 lives. As so often across the world, the vast majority of the victims of this conflict were innocent civilians. For a tiny Pacific island like Bougainville, this death toll of 20,000 is a horrific testament to the viciousness of the conflict. It is estimated that the influx of small arms and the easy availability of weapons like the Kalashnikov AK-47 intensified the conflict and multiplied the death toll dramatically. So the question is: How did they achieve peace…and what happened just recently in 2019?
Between 1997 and 2001, tensions eased markedly. The political environment in PNG was conducive to finding a peaceful solution as various armed groups realised that there is no military solution to this conflict. In 1997, the election of Bill Skate as prime minister of PNG was a catalyst for peace. Skate ran his election campaign under a banner of committing to a peaceful solution to the Bougainville question. Under the leadership of New Zealand and Australia, PNG withdrew its armed forces from Bougainville on the condition that the main rebel groups lay down their arms. From the very beginning of the ensuing peace process, it was recognised that fighting should not only end, but also that weapons need to be removed from the island to prevent violence from ever flaring up again. This is not a natural conclusion as such a strong focus on collecting the conflict parties’ weapons is not always part of the early stages of a peace process. This approach proved highly successful and culminated in the Bougainville Peace Agreement of 2001. Now let’s leap forward to 2019: Almost 20 years after the signing of the peace agreement, Bougainville held an independence referendum in November 2019. To organise such a referendum was part of the long-term peace settlement. An overwhelming 98% of Bougainvilleans cast their vote in favour of independence from PNG. As a result, the PNG central government and the Autonomous Bougainville Government are now conducting multi-year negotiations about the future of their relationship. This relationship could result in full independence of Bougainville and the creation of a new, sovereign country. Alternatively, the outcome might also be a greater degree of self-rule and autonomy instead of opting for full sovereignty. In any event, the negotiations will culminate in a new constitutional arrangement and therefore present a historic moment that can ensure that the conflict will never come back.
Now how does this relate to Release Peace and the fight against small arms? We believe that the upcoming negotiations open a truly historic opportunity to enshrine a society without guns into the laws of the “new” Bougainville from the very beginning. The emphasis of the peace process on the removal of existing small arms has shown that all parties recognise the importance of this aspect and are willing to free their society of weapons. Experiences from around the world sadly show that if weapons return, so will the conflict. It is therefore of paramount importance that Bougainville takes measures to prevent weapons from being imported into the country again in the future. Most people do not know that many Pacific island nations have already banned all firearms and are virtually gun-free societies. This is an amazing achievement in the region and Release Peace encourages Bougainville to follow that lead. We therefore work on engaging with relevant parties in Bougainville to follow the peaceful road of its neighbours and make a commitment to a gun-free society an integral part of the current negotiations on the future legal framework for Bougainville. This reflects our motto that it is wise to prevent conflicts now if we want to save many lives later.
our work: making peace last for FUTURE generations
Release Peace engages with the different actors in Bougainville to make our argument for a society free of guns. We believe that we have a strong case to make in light of the bloody history of Bougainville. Many island nations in the Pacific, and therefore many of Bougainville’s neighbours, already have achieved something amazing: societies free of guns. To prevent the dark days of the past from re-emerging ever again, we are willing to speak to all parties to convince them of a positive path forward that constitutionally bans weapons from ever entering Bougainville again. Prevention is a million times better than intervention.
Our work is a clear example of the UN's Sustainable Development Goal #16:
The United Nations defined a framework of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. Our work on Bougainville directly contributes to SDG 16. We believe strong and functioning institutions are key to create long-term peace. Any country’s institutions are based on a legal framework, such as its constitution. We therefore advocate towards to Autonomous Bougainville Government to implement legal constraints that prohibit the import of weapons in the future. These efforts are part of our wider strategy to contribute to more SDGs. This includes such SDGs that may at first glance not seem conflict-related, but at a closer look are hugely affected by conflicts. Please look at our work on the SDGs here.