Bougainville's Post-Referendum process: Decision 2023/2024?

Anthony Regan, Professor, Department of Pacific Affairs

The referendum for Bougainvilleans on Bougainville’s future political status, 23 November to 11 December, saw 97.7 per cent vote for independence and 1.7 per cent for ‘greater autonomy’. The referendum result was not binding on PNG, but neither was the referendum purely advisory of consultative the PNG. Instead, the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) and PNG Constitution mandate a three-stage post-referendum decision making process in relation to the results - mandatory consultation between PNG and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), then decision-making by the PNG Parliament, with the possibility also arising of any ‘differences’ about the referendum being referred to a three stage inter-government dispute resolution process. Unlike the BPA provisions on weapons disposal, autonomy, and actual conduct of the referendum, the BPA contains no provision on either incentives for implementing the post-referendum decision-making arrangements, or a time-table within which they should operate. Despite general agreement before the referendum that post-referendum consultations should begin very soon after the referendum, they in fact did not start for 18 months, in May 2021. Despite hopes of ABG Leaders being raised in the first two consultation meetings that PNG was close to agreeing the ABG demand for early recognition of Bougainville independence, by the third meeting, in December 2021, it was clear agreement was not close, and the ABG declared the consultations over. The focus of effort then shifted to discussion of how a decision would be reached on the referendum results, and officials negotiated the terms of an agreement signed by the leadership in April 2022 – the Era Kone Covenant – which envisaged the two governments agreeing on how the results would be tabled in the PNG Parliament and a decision made on the results. Over a year later, with no agreement reached on those matters, the PNG Minister for Bougainville Affairs made a statement to the Parliament on 13 June 2023, on the next steps, which should see the results tabled later in 2023, and after a Parliamentary Committee conducts a nation-wide ‘awareness and consultation’ process, debate and a decision by Parliament would be possible in 2024. The ABG has made strong criticisms of aspects of the minister’s proposals.

This seminar discusses: why the post-referendum decision-making process began so long after the referendum: the ABG position on independence advanced in the consultations; why the ABG is seeking PNG agreement to Bougainville independence; why the consultation meetings ended in December 2021; the basis for disagreements over the process since then; issues involved in both tabling of the referendum results in, and decision-making about the results, by the Parliament; why a decision of Parliament on independence for Bougainville can be expected in 2024.

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