FINDINGS OF THE NATIONAL INVESTIGATION COMMITTEE ON BOUGAINVILLE

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By Neville Choi

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (October 7, 1999 – The Independent)---Last week, during a special two-day parliament session, a total of 74 members of parliament voted that the provisional suspension placed on the Bougainville provincial government by the Skate administration at the beginning of this year be extended.

The decision made by the 74 MPs to vote for the extension was based on a report formulated by a National Investigative Committee (NIC), which conducted a tour of the North Solomons Province to seek the views of a cross section of the people of the province on the suspension and the negotiations toward a lasting political, peace settlement.

The committee found that there existed, in all correspondence from or interviews with people on the island, a general commitment to peace by peaceful means.

Following is an edited excerpt of the findings of the NIC’s report:

REPORT

Everyone is committed to peace by peaceful means

Regardless of their views on other questions, everyone who spoke or wrote to the NIC expressed or otherwise displayed a strong commitment to peace by peaceful means.

Need for progress on ‘the political issue’

Despite differences on other questions, including confirmation and extension of the suspension, everyone also agreed on the need to make progress on ‘the political issue’ -- and to develop an agenda of issues and a timetable for meetings directed towards reaching agreement on arrangements for the future government of Bougainville in the medium- and, preferably, the long-term.

Difficulties in assess public opinion

It can, of course, be difficult for ordinary, law-abiding and peaceful people to express themselves freely in public while illegal weapons remain readily accessible to other people; civil authority, including police and courts, has not been fully restored; memories of past injustices, violence and wrongs, fear and uncertainty are still widespread; former rivals and enemies are still reconciling -- or have barely begun to reconcile at all; and, despite their rights as citizens and human beings, people are, in practice, unable to choose representatives or enforce accountability on leaders through free and fair elections.

While differing views were expressed at almost every meeting we attended and through the submissions we received, there is, in fact, evidence that opinion in some areas has been organized, influenced by pressure, and even orchestrated.

Distribution of views

While we have tried to obtain and assess the views of people in and from Bougainville, the NIC is not charged with necessarily following public opinion in our findings and recommendations.

Much the same can be said of the basis on which the NEC (National Executive Council) and the National Parliament will decide on confirmation, as well as possible extension, of any provincial government suspension.

The questions of whether or not a suspension is justified in law is, ultimately, a matter of judgment based on the facts of the overall situation -- and the facts on the ground in Bougainville include not only the opinions of leaders and people but the ready availability of guns, as well as fears, threats and uncertainty.

Nonetheless, we believe that, despite some dissent, opinion in South and Central Bougainville strongly supports confirmation - and even extension - because of the overall situation there. So, on the NIC’s assessment, do the facts on the ground.

We were, of course, unable to enter and speak with Francis Ona’s hardcore supporters in the area around Panguna, though we believe that the way in which they remain outside the peace process is among the factors which make it difficult to build up confidence for weapons disposal and to make greater progress in restoring civil authority. The same factors give rise to widespread uncertainty and fear, including concern at the consequences likely to follow if the provincial government reforms are fully applied in Bougainville.

Opinion is more openly divided in the North, where it can be just as strongly felt and expressed on all sides.

On Nissan Island, we found that people there feel able to express differing views more freely still.

So, whatever the outcome of NEC’s and the National Parliament’s deliberations on confirmation - and then possible extension - of the suspension, we believe that it will be necessary to promote public awareness, understanding and calm on all sides: a well-publicized plan which shows where the peace process is going - especially, in relation to ‘the political issue’ - might help to prevent tensions from rising by showing that decisions on the issues immediately at stake do not necessarily produce long-term winners and losers, and providing a map towards reaching agreement on long-term questions, and so a possible ‘win-win’ outcome.

The targets embodied in the plan could also be used as benchmarks for measuring progress towards self-sustaining peace -- by the parties directly involved in the Bougainville peace process, as well as the Peace Monitoring Group (PMG) and the United Nations (UN) observer mission, and foreign aid donors.

Implications

The over-all situation we found on the ground underlines the need to progress with disposing of arms, ammunition, explosives, etc. as a matter of urgency, as agreed at Lincoln (and recorded in the Lincoln Agreement, paragraph 3) - though the situation around Panguna adds a particular element of uncertainty, risk and complexity.

For similar reasons - and with similar qualifications - it is also important to make greater progress in restoring civil authority, including adequate numbers of properly equipped police, courts and correctional institutional services (as promised in the Lincoln Agreement, paragraph 7).

The same situation makes it all the more important, and difficult, to prepare for, and hold, free and fair elections in Bougainville at the earliest possible opportunity.

Assessment

Generally, and bearing in mind the points made earlier in this chapter, we conclude from what we have observed, heard at our meetings and learned from written submissions and petitions, as well as other sources, that the matters which gave rise to the NEC’s decision justified the view that, because of widespread fears, threats and uncertainty arising from wide and strong opposition to application of the provincial government reforms in Bougainville: the Bougainville Provincial Government as at January 1, 1999, and since, "undermines...the national unity" by giving rise to serious divisions within, and between communities; and the situation could, and can, be put right only by suspension.

The NIC finds accordingly, and in doing so, feel bound to draw attention to the urgent need to reach the earliest possible, sound agreement on the details of a plan for disposing of arms, ammunition, explosives, etc.

The need to replace the rule of the gun by restoring civil authority requires urgent and sustained attention too - immediately, to deal with disorder associated with the production, distribution and consumption of "JJ" (jungle juice) or "hombru" and increasing crime; and, in the longer term, to ensure lasting peace.

Judging from the oral and written submissions we received, the NIC also believes that it is important to reduce current uncertainty by reaching agreement on an agenda and timetable for consulting and making progress on future arrangements for government in Bougainville. Bearing in mind the need to balance urgency with care in addressing important, complex and sensitive issues, the parties involved in the Bougainville peace process should make every effort to proceed with all deliberate speed.

People, on all sides of the provincial government suspension in Bougainville have expressed strong support for the early setting of an agenda and timetable for a progressive political settlement in Bougainville: with few exceptions, even opponents of confirmation - who are generally still more strongly opposed to the possibility of extension - have, in fact, made clear that they regard lifting of the suspension and full application of the Organic Law on Provincial Governments and Local-Level Governments as essentially a short-term option, which they would prefer pending agreement on further arrangements for government suitable to Bougainville’s needs in the longer term, and resolution of ‘the political issue’.

Support for setting an agenda and timetable for a progressive political settlement has been expressed on all sides.

A number of people and groups who appeared before us have even proposed specific deadlines.

But the matter is not strictly one for the NIC -- or even for the National Parliament -- to decide on their own.

It should be subject to discussion and agreement between all parties.

When the parties involved in the Bougainville peace process come to discuss a possible agenda and timetable, they will need to bear in mind the lead-time required to change or make the national constitution or organic laws, one month’s notice, even after relevant bills have been drafted and gazetted, and two months between votes in the National Parliament.

For additional reports from The Independent, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Independent (Papua New Guinea).

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