By BERTIE AHERN
THIRTY years ago Bougainville lost 20,000 people in a brutal civil war that lasted almost a decade.
This week Bougainvilleans will go to the polls to vote on independence from Papua New Guinea, but in a very different mood – one of joy and celebration.
Underlying this historic occasion is a resolve by all sides to honour the fallen, but never again return to conflict.
This long journey has been possible because of a peace process that resulted in the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement – or BPA – in August 2001 by the leaders of multiple warring Bougainville factions and the PNG government. It was founded on three pillars: weapons disposal, autonomy, and a guaranteed but non-binding referendum on independence.
At its beating heart has been a mantra of “peace by peaceful means”, born of a unique Melanesian process of reconciliation and consensus making.
Resolving long-standing disputes and independence aspirations without violence is not easy. Conflicts rage around us.
Less than half of the world’s peace agreements survive their first five years.
On my own island of Ireland the Good Friday Agreement took 13 years of hard negotiation from ceasefire to political settlement. Even today, 21 years later, the agreement requires constant care and tending.
Agreements are not only signed pieces of paper.
They are the implementation and the new relationships that they set out to define.
So on the eve of this referendum, what can the BPA and the “Melanesian Way” that underpins it teach us all about peaceful conflict resolution.
l Bertie Ahern is the Chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission and was Taoiseach of Ireland from 1997 to 2008.
– The Guardian