“Bel Isi” - Sustaining Peace the Melanesian way

Many will remember the outbreak of the civil crisis in 1988, and know of the Bougainville Peace Agreement signed in August 2001. The United Nations established an observer mission to help oversee the creation of the new Autonomous Bougainville Government and the implementation of the Peace Agreement. Fast forward to 2021, both Governments are negotiating peace the Melanesian way.

The successful conduct of the 2019 referendum on Bougainville's future political status was a milestone event.

The positivity and unity experienced in the lead up to, and conduct of, the referendum - and the response to the result of the referendum by the vast majority of Bougainvilleans, highlights what can be achieved by working together through an inclusive, informed process. It has been described by many in Bougainville as a key step in the healing process.

Dialogue of this nature in any community or country is challenging. In order to succeed and serve its purpose, there must be integrity and commitment to secure lasting peace in a manner that is respected by the Parties involved.

Behind the scenes was a team of experts from the United Nations Development Programme, both national and international, and other partners working around the clock to provide much-needed support leading up to the referendum. UNDP provided significant support alongside the national government and development partners.

Together, a concerted effort was made across Bougainville to support the peace process, remove weapons from communities, and for those divided by the conflict to reconcile. UNDP supported critical meetings to progress the political dialogue between the national government and Autonomous Bougainville Government, where key referendum-related resolutions were passed including formation of the Bougainville Referendum Commission, the appointment of an International Chair, and allocation of a budget to run the referendum.

Lessons from the past indicate that while information and communication about the referendum and Bougainville Peace Agreement is needed, what is just as important is for communities to develop their own, joint vision about what a peaceful and prosperous community will look like in the future, and the roles they can play in that vision.

Extensive investments in awareness campaigns - from local to national - with enrolment and polling opportunities, ensured the process was inclusive and understood. Special focus was given to women, youth, churches, veterans and communities to empower them to participate in the process. Considerable effort also was made to include the various outlier groups in the process. Instruments such as the constituency-level Referendum-Ready Decelerations, referendum checklists, and the Joint Weapons Disposal Secretariat, were used to guide local level interventions.

Fast forward to 2021, the United Nations Resident Coordinator was invited by the two Governments to Chair the Intergovernmental Dialogue. The UNDP Resident Representative, Mr. Dirk Wagener, assumed this role (as acting UN Resident Coordinator) following the departure of Mr. Gianluca Rampolla in July 2021.

In his opening address during the second Intergovernmental Dialogue, held in Wabag, Enga Province attended by Prime Minister, the Hon. James Marape and Bougainville's President, the Hon. Ishmael Toroama, Mr. Wagener said the United Nations is committed to bringing to this role the neutrality, impartiality and confidentiality expected of the UN.

He also reaffirmed the commitment of the participants to the principles of the consultation process adopted by the Joint Post-Referendum Ministerial Planning Task Force of the, “overarching principles of the post-referendum process.”

“In honouring the spirit of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, the consultation process will sustain peace in Bougainville through a collaborative engagement between Bougainville and the rest of Papua New Guinea, based on mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual responsibility,” said Mr Wagener.

Mr. Wagener stated that the dialogue will be successful when we follow the Melanesian culture where “values and understanding as Melanesian sisters and brothers is key to dialogue. This includes integrity and honesty in our deliberations which contributes to reconciliation and to building trust and solidarity."

The Post-Referendum process and dialogue will continue in 2022. The successful processes since the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement and conduct of the Referendum demonstrates the true Melanesian approach to conflict resolution and peace building. The Peace Agreement is recognised as a successful agreement globally as there has not been a relapse back into conflict since 2001.

‘Bel isi’ in tok pisin means "peace, agreement, or consensus between parties who are in dispute or conflict." The dialogues and negotiation between the two Governments have always demonstrated values, understanding and respect in a truely Melanesian way.