Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence
The fighting in Bougainville lasted more than nine years. From the beginning of the protracted conflict, the unfolding events in Bougainville have been of continuing interest to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (the Committee) and its predecessors. Apart from concerns on humanitarian grounds, the Committee's on-going interest stems from recognition that a stable Papua New Guinea (PNG) is of direct concern to Australia and the region, and that Australia has been linked to the Bougainville crisis from the outset, with the establishment of mining operations during the time of Australia's administration and through the training and supply of the PNG Defence Force.
A delegation of the Committee visited Port Moresby and Bougainville from 15 to 18March 1999 as part of the inquiry into the Bougainville peace process. During the visit, the nine delegation members had the opportunity to appreciate Bougainville's rugged terrain and the difficulties that geography and other factors impose on communications. Most importantly, the visit enabled the delegation to hold discussions with most of the key participants in the peace negotiations and to see at first hand the extent of the reconstruction and rehabilitation tasks in Bougainville.
On 31 March 1999, the Committee presented an interim report to Parliament, with preliminary conclusions reached as a result of the delegation's visit. Many of those conclusions have been re-affirmed in the final report now presented by the Committee.
Since the formal peace process began with the first Burnham meeting in mid 1997, remarkable progress has been made, notwithstanding periodic setbacks to the peace negotiations timetable. Today, Bougainville is relatively calm and, although there have been isolated killings, there has been no major fighting for more than two years. The daily lives of the Bougainvillean people are returning to normal, and freedom of movement has considerably improved. However, only limited trading and other commercial activities are yet in evidence. As elsewhere in PNG, there are law and order problems in some parts of Bougainville.
Australia is not a party to the peace negotiations, and the question of Bougainville's future political status is therefore one to be resolved by the PNG Government, the people of Bougainville and their leaders. In conjunction with other regional countries, Australia has made a major contribution to advancing the peace process, through political and diplomatic efforts, through our large bilateral aid program, and through the highly successful Peace Monitoring Group stationed in Bougainville. There are very positive signs that the 'peace dividend' is showing results in practical ways and that the peace process is continuing to move forward.
After extraordinary political developments in Port Moresby which culminated in the resignation of Prime Minister Bill Skate in July 1999, a new national government led by SirMekere Morauta has begun the task of determining future directions for PNG. Soon after his appointment, Sir Mekere announced the priorities for the government as being:
- restoring integrity to PNG's political institutions;
- stabilising the value of the kina and restoring stability to the national budget;
- removing obstacles to investment and economic growth; and
- bringing the peace process in Bougainville to a successful conclusion.
The Committee recognises the possibility that tensions could again emerge in Bougainville if there appears to be any faltering on the part of the PNG national government in its resolve to pursue the peace negotiations and to restore effective civil administration to Bougainville. Nevertheless, the Committee is encouraged by the progress already made and the almost universal desire of the Bougainvillean people for a permanent peace settlement and a secure future.
Despite occasional setbacks, the peace process has continued to move forward, and the Committee is confident that the parties have reached a sound basis for continuing negotiations. While major divisive issues still remain to be resolved, the Committee views developments such as the peaceful elections in May 1999 and the successful establishment of the Bougainville People's Congress as very positive indications that the aims and objectives of the Lincoln Agreement and the more recent Matakana and Okataina Understanding will be achieved in the not too distant future.
The Committee is very aware that external aid will be needed for some time to come. Apart from the immense human tragedies of the war in Bougainville, there has been an almost total destruction of the province's political, economic and physical infrastructure. Restoration of basic communications, law and order and essential services such as health and education, are huge tasks which will take many years. In suggesting ways in which Australia might assist further in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Bougainville through the aid program in particular, the Committee has sought to achieve greater flexibility and responsiveness in aid delivery while at the same time acknowledging the substantial contributions already made under difficult circumstances.
Above all, the Committee has endorsed the aim of bringing about a Bougainville-led recovery in which as wide a cross-section of the people of Bougainville as possible have the opportunity to benefit from the 'peace dividend'.
Hon David Jull, MP
Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee