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Australia complicit in PNG's Bougainville blight

  • 02 August 2013

The PNG Solution is in breach of international law. It does not serve the best interest of the asylum seekers it will affect. And the Department of Immigration and Citizenship is taking grossly insufficient responsibility for the safety and security of its detainees on Manus Island. But the PNG Solution is just another in a long line of 'border control' solutions which are in breach of legality and morality. There is nothing new about it.

Much has been made of PNG's poverty and gender-based violence, but even more disturbing is its military and police human rights record. Evidence of abuses in the form of a military blockade, massacres, rape and torture during the Bougainville Crisis, the civil war that spanned the 1990s, are well-documented.

This conflict was sparked by what local communities saw as profound environmental and economic damage perpetrated by Rio Tinto's copper mine at Panguna. What began as civil disobedience quickly descended into civil war, and Rio Tinto was subsequently taken to a US court, accused of genocide.

In 1990, the island was subject to a state-sanctioned blockade that lasted six years, during which time no trade in or out of the island was permitted. This prohibited the import and export of information (media blockade), energy, medical supplies and clothing. A generation of young people were denied formal schooling, and preventable illnesses killed young and old in the thousands.

Councils and organisations emerged to provide education and natural medicine, hydro- and coconut-based power was ingeniously created, and radiowaves were hijacked by rebels for communication. Yet accounts from this time paint a terrifying scene. One witness wrote that the scarcity of clothes led some elderly people to remain inside their homes for over a year because they were ashamed of their nakedness.

'Corruption', which is well-documented in PNG, sounds empty. But its outcomes are disturbing. State corruption produces a culture of corruption at every level. People with power are not held accountable. In times of disaster, people with power who are not held accountable are liable to perpetrate violence against vulnerable people.

The Bougainville Crisis made exiles out of many civilians. Some fled to Port Moresby or Australia if they got out early and had the right resources. Others sought asylum in the Solomon Islands. In documentation of the conflict, witnesses recall the PNGDF gunning down Red Cross boats as they smuggled people, clothing and medical supplies to and from the Solomon Islands. These violations