The fog of peace: post-conflict environments as sites of impunity, denial and dispossession

Too often the sterile, objective needs of capital, for a range of reasons, take precedence over the subjective needs of traumatised, conflict-affected peoples.

Kristian Lasslett
17 December 2014

Peacebuilding in the aftermath of armed conflict is an intricate process designed to heal broken bonds and create a shared social fabric that can support a future free of violence. Best practice places a premium on grassroots participation, and ‘bottom-up’ reconciliation, out of which percolates a sustainable peace driven by the people, rather than political elites and technocrats.

Yet peacebuilding can also be a formidable framework for neutralising social contention, marginalising dissent, denying justice, rebuilding or preserving structural inequalities, and enacting new forms of dispossession, under the powerful garb of sealing a lasting peace.

Nowhere is the complex, contested, and contradictory nature of peacebuilding more apparent than on the Melanesian island of Bougainville, which sits on the easternmost border of Papua New Guinea. For most of the 1990s it was embroiled in a bitter war that pitted Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) troops against Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) guerrillas.

The Bougainville conflict

The hostilities were triggered by a major copper and gold mine owned by British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, and operated by its Papua New Guinea subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL). The mine was emblematic of a contested process of social change on Bougainville that had eroded biocultural diversity and community cohesion in a part of the world where both are revered.

An excerpt from ‘An Evergreen Island’ on the conflict’s origins, courtesy of Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini of Frontyard Films.

Out of increasingly bitter intra-community tensions, and hostility towards foreign exploitation, emerged a radical anti-capitalist movement that sort to preserve Melanesian communitarian and ecological values in the face of the dissolving effect of global market forces. The expropriation of Rio Tinto, and then secession, would become the preferred avenue for achieving these ends. 

However, before Bougainville could recalibrate its position within the global economy, the revolutionary currents within the BRA – the force also had more ‘moderate’ strains – would need to defeat the PNGDF, who were armed and advised by the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and logistically supported by BCL. They also faced internal resistance from domestic factions on Bougainville who had benefited from the commercialisation of the rural economy and the extractive industries.


BCL infrastructure at Panguna was availed to the PNGDF. Photo courtesy of Clive Porabou. All rights reserved.Out of this contested situation a brutal war developed that left between 10,000 and 20,000 people dead. No party to the hostilities can maintain the high moral ground, but the violence employed by the PNGDF, with ADF and corporate backing, was particularly devastating.

Thousands were displaced by offensive operations which saw villages indiscriminately levelled. Equally indiscriminate was the violence against civilians: torture and extra-judicial killings were commonplace, so was rape.

None of this could have occurred without the Australian government underwriting the PNGDF onslaught. They plied pressure on the government to ratchet up its counterinsurgency, and then supplied the means to wage war on a largely civilian population.

Equally BCL played its role; the company provided the PNGDF with trucks, fuel, accommodation, messing and medical facilities, storage space, communications equipment and secretarial services.

The war would continue until 1997 when a ceasefire was reached. This paved the way for a permanent peace agreement signed in 2001. The latter grants Bougainville special autonomy status, and a referendum over independence that will take place within the next five years.

Peace and denial

Since 1997 an intricate peacebuilding process has taken place. To that end, considerable headway has been made with respect to local reconciliation, and the establishment of an Autonomous Bougainville Government with significant devolved powers. These are important milestones and have rightly been celebrated.

However, certain lacunas remain. For example, there has not been any form of redress for the crimes committed by state and corporate actors. Also, much more needs to be done with respect to acknowledging conflict legacies (good and bad), analysing the structural processes which prompted the hostilities, and recording/commemorating the memories of those who endured the violent upheavals of war.

Indeed, some of these more contentious processes have been actively suspended or side-lined in the name of securing the peace. A demonstrative example is the Bougainvillean class action launched against Rio Tinto in 2001 employing the US, Alien Tort Statute. While the action was not without problems, it represented the first innovative attempt by victims to seek reparations from Rio Tinto, albeit using a rather obscure foreign statute.


The mine’s scars remain at Panguna. Photo courtesy of Clive Porabou. All rights reserved.The British and Australian governments bitterly protested the action.

In a stark warning to the US State Department, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) underlined the fragility of Bougainville’s peace. The class action, it argued, ‘would be an unsettling and destabilising event in circumstances where the need for stability and certainty on the island is paramount’.

Then in the worst neo-colonial tradition, where paternalistic officials presume to know what is best for people over whom they have no rightful mandate, DFAT’s First Secretary claimed, ‘if the peace process were to be disrupted by this court case the welfare of the people on the island would suffer’.

Britain was more candid in its motivations for opposing the class action. In government records recently uncovered by the Corporate Responsibility Coalition, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) acknowledged the impact their opposition to the Bougainvillean action would have: ‘It could also be interpreted as cutting across our stated ambition to challenge impunity and to help deliver justice to victims of the most serious of international crimes’.

But compelling factors outweighed these concerns: ‘Extraterritorial jurisdiction is a problem for business, particularly in the US courts which have power to make very high damages awards. [redacted] Supporting Rio Tinto in this case (and more generally the interests of UK business as a whole) is consistent with the FCO’s commitments under our Charter for Business’.

The class action was indeed snuffed out in 2013 on jurisdictional grounds, as the FCO and DFAT had hoped.

Contesting post-conflict reconstruction

But it is not merely the haughty application of imperial power that is impeding a thoroughgoing process of healing and reflection. The Autonomous Bougainville Government’s (ABG) ambition to rebuild a market-economy on Bougainville has also had an unexpected constraining effect.

To that end, Dr John Momis, the ABG President, has consistently argued that only by reinvigorating the extractive industries on Bougainville can peace and independence be secured. He has received auxiliary support for this initiative from the Australian government and the World Bank.

Momis contends that ‘the ABG supports re-opening Panguna’, because he claims, ‘we see that as the most realistic way of contributing to broad-based economic growth, and generating the ABG revenues required to meet the needs of our people’. It is also his argument that landowners from the Panguna region welcome the return of BCL as the preferred operator: ‘Leaders of the landowners from the mine lease areas have consistently indicated that they prefer to deal with BCL rather than a new potential operator. They talk of preferring the “devil they know, and not a new devil”’.

However, a more contested narrative has emerged in a recent report published by Jubilee Australia in collaboration with the International State Crime Initiative and Papua New Guinea NGO, the Bismarck Ramu Group.

Based on 82 accounts provided by a cross-section of society in the mine affected area, participants talk of a modern history punctuated by the marginalisation, dispossession and immiseration of landowning communities. The war in this sense was the sharpest expression of a much broader social current that has threatened their ways of life and sovereignty. Participants also expressed a deep fear that this process will continue, but this time at the hands of the autonomous government.


The Jubilee Australia report at the centre of recent debate.Bougainville’s President was affronted by the testimony and took the unusual step of reporting Jubilee Australia to the Australian High Commission. To date he has labelled the report ‘deeply racist’ and ‘divisive’. Indeed, over the course of numerous media interventions and three letters that stretch to 26 pages in length, the President catalogues a range of grievances. Most significantly he accuses Jubilee Australia of harming the peace process, ‘undermining the authority’ of his ‘fledgling government’, and dividing communities. The President has demanded Jubilee formally apologise and retract the report. 

Dr Momis adopted a similar line in 2013 when a UN Gender Violence Survey raised concerns over heightened interpersonal violence against women. Here again the authors were accused of racism and an apology was demanded.

Post-conflict reconstruction and transformative justice

Bougainville has reached a challenging phase in the transitional process. Despite the considerable achievements made with respect to local reconciliation, modest efforts designed to confront impunity, reflect on the past, and raise sensitive legacy issues, are still being framed by certain organisational actors as deeply incendiary acts that could unravel the peace. None of which is to impute mala fides to the latter actors, indeed the above criticisms should be seen as the genuine concerns of a government and its allies, in dealing with a challenging post-conflict environment.

Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the constraining effects which international political economic currents have on those managing the transitional process. For governments of small, resource-rich island states in search of an expanded revenue base, there is an orthodox tendency to court those industries which hold the prospect of commanding large flows of capital – with commensurate profits – from which a relatively sizable volume of taxation can be subtracted. 

With that in mind, the ABG and its international advisers, have strongly argued that the extractive industries hold out the best hope of attracting large injections of capital, from which revenues can be garnered to help strengthen the ABG, stimulate rural industries, and quench popular desires for a post-conflict dividend. This is not the place to reflect on the latter economic model, the critical point is, as a result of these calculations, a premium has been placed on local reconciliation efforts as a buttress for stability, in addition to programmes that help build government capacity, including the management of the extractive industries. 

On the other hand, peace-making processes that confront state-corporate impunity, register enduring legacy issues, and critically reflect on the past and its structural dynamics – all of which might prove more uncomfortable for state-corporate actors, especially those instrumentally involved in Bougainville’s extractive industries – are being dismissedas the remit of divisive hardliners, or worse still the naïve offerings of foreign anti-mining activists. This marginalisation of certain peacemaking currents, it would seem, is prompted by a genuine belief on the part of certain actors that these types of critical interventions will seriously deter investors, and quash Bougainville’s most viable chance for achieving an independent, sustainable future.    

In effect, what we are confronting here is a constraining force that emerges in post-conflict environments when critical spokes in the peacemaking process, namely post-conflict reconstruction and transformative justice, come into confrontation. This confrontation, where the former is often the frequent victor, cannot be blamed on any one organisational actor. Rather, it must be seen as an articulation of broader contradictions in the political economic currents which frame transition, wherein the sterile, objective needs of capital, for a range of reasons, take precedence over the subjective needs of traumatised, conflict-affected peoples.

Yet this begs the question, what does peace mean if it entails rebuilding the very structural dynamics that prompted conflict (including the dispossession of landowners), and silencing forms of civil society resistance that have the potential to avoid contention from taking an armed form?

This question is not for Bougainville alone to wrestle with. It is a dynamic that goads many post-conflict societies, who are facing the bleak reality of the structural dynamics that so many sacrificed so much to transform; except that now to question these dynamics is to become labelled an opponent of peace and progress, on occasion by the very actors that were instrumental in overseeing brutal state violence.

It is important, therefore, that transitional environments are recognised as the critical sites of contention that they are, despite the frequent appeals to unity of purpose. And that within this contested environment deeply unequal distributions of power exist – even where ‘bottom up’ practice is hotly championed – that can trigger new cycles of dispossession and marginalisation under the delusive garb of peacebuilding, security and ‘moving on’.  

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