Dec 10, 2019

Bougainville Referendum: An Example for Governments Everywhere

In a referendum held on 24 November 2019, the people of Bougainville, an archipelago of islands in the Solomon sea, voted overwhelmingly to become an independent state from Papua New Guinea. The referendum was the pillar of the Bougainville Peace Agreement between the government of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville leaders to end a devastating decade-long civil war which claimed nearly 20,000 lives.

The officials of the Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC), a body which has been set up to administer the vote, have noted that despite the overwhelming environmental and infrastructural difficulties in conducting the referendum on the islands, the Bougainville referendum has witnessed the most comprehensive electoral enrollment process in the history of Papua New Guinea.

The 2019 Bougainville referendum is a refreshing instance of a minority group exercising its right to choose its own political status and to determine its own form of economic, cultural and social development. This is particularity important in light of the worrying developments in other parts of the world where autocratic states are systematically repressing the right of its people to self-determination and therefore violating their obligations under international law.

This repressive trend can be observed in West Papua, where the Indonesian government is resorting to systematic violence and intimidation tactics as it intensifies its crackdown on peaceful West Papuan protesters. On the other hand, in Bangladesh the government has failed to implement a key peace accord, which protects the rights of the indigenous people of Chittagong Hill Tracts, and has instead endorsed a crackdown on activists, human rights lawyers, and journalists in the region.

Similarly, in Spain, members of the Catalan civil society have been arrested and imprisoned for supporting a referendum in 2017. The oppression following the overwhelmingly pro-independence vote coupled with the silence of the EU in treating it as Spain’s internal matter has only encouraged more state oppression. As a result, recurring reports of police violence against protesters has become a worrying trend.

Amidst this alarming political environment of state violence and oppression, the effort of the government of Papua New Guinea to ensure that the people of Bougainville exercise their right to self-determination, as enshrined in international law, is commendable. In doing so, it has placed itself as a champion of democracy and human rights with other states that have adopted a constructive approach towards matters of self-determination, as the UK did with Scotland or France with New Caledonia.

While the result of the referendum is not binding and the Government of Papua New Guinea has the final say in the event of a pro-independence result, UNPO hopes that PNG will continue to honor its commitments under international law and support the decision of the people of Bougainville. If it does so, it will set a strong example for other states of the world to uphold the right of all people to self-determination through the protection of fundamental human rights and the principles of democracy.


Photo: Peter Reft/Wikimedia