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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 221

Senator LOOSLEY —My question is directed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I refer to recent reports relating to military activity on the island of Bougainville by the Papua New Guinea defence force, especially in and around the Panguna mine, and to separate reports of the possibility of the resumption of peace talks in Honiara. In particular, I draw attention to the reported remarks of Papua New Guinea Foreign Minister Sir Julius Chan regarding the possibility of renewed discussions with the Bougainvillean interlocutors. I ask: what is the current position of the Australian government in respect of negotiations regarding the troubles on Bougainville? Does Australia remain firmly committed to a resolution through peace talks and a political settlement?

Senator GARETH EVANS —It is the case that on 15 August a company of Papua New Guinea defence force personnel entered the mine site at Panguna. No casualties were experienced during this action. To date, there has been no significant challenge to their presence, although that cannot be assumed to continue to be the case in the future.

  The government recognises that the PNGDF has a legitimate and useful role to play on Bougainville, a point that was acknowledged in the report of the Australian parliamentary delegation which, under Senator Loosley's chairmanship, visited Bougainville in April this year. We nonetheless believe that the conflict there cannot be resolved by purely military means. It is our hope that this action by the PNGDF will not stall the process of dialogue that is now under way.

  There is no reason to believe that it will stall that process. Prime Minister Wingti, with whom I discussed the matter at the South Pacific Forum in Brisbane a couple of weeks ago, said that he remained firmly committed to pursuing a process of dialogue with Bougainvilleans. In a recent press statement following the Panguna operation, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Chan reiterated this position by stating that the Bougainville crisis could not be solved by military means alone. He said that the government was still fully committed to ending the suffering and destruction on Bougainville through the concerted process which began in June for a peace settlement between all concerned Bougainvillean groups and the national government.

  Formal discussions between the Papua New Guinea government and the Bougainvillean groups have not taken place since the end of June. Nonetheless, informal discussions have continued between various Bougainvillean factions and PNG officials. Senior BRA members have not so far responded to PNG government overtures for talks. We believe it is now imperative that the BRA join the PNG government in establishing a framework for the resolution of the conflict, hopefully perhaps, involving some assistance from the government in Honiara, as was suggested in this respect.

  It is axiomatic that responsibility for ending this conflict does rest ultimately with the parties themselves. There are some useful and appropriate ways in which Papua New Guinea's friends can assist in this context. We do believe, for example, that the visit of the parliamentary delegation—to which I have referred—has assisted in bringing about a climate in which a process of dialogue has at least been able to commence.

  We also welcome the evidence that the Papua New Guinea government has taken up a couple of specific recommendations of that report. Prime Minister Wingti visited Bougainville, as had been recommended, on 26 July and subsequently pledged additional reconstruction funds. He also announced a decision more recently to establish a human rights commission. Flowing from that, a workshop has been organised for later this year with the assistance of the UN Development Program and Centre for Human Rights.

  We remain ready as an Australian government to play a supportive role in facilitating a peaceful resolution there, provided that all parties agree that Australia's assistance would be helpful. To this end, for example, we recently provided the Solomon Islands government with a small cash assistance to enable it to facilitate peace talks.

  Finally, we have indicated that we may be prepared to assist a peacekeeping operation on Bougainville—that is a Pacific Island formed peacekeeping operation—provided there is sufficient progress in the PNG government's dialogue with its Bougainvillean interlocutors. Any such operation would need to be of a limited duration and have a clear and tightly defined mission—for example, to provide security for a peace and reconciliation conference. We certainly would not envisage, as I have said publicly before, the deployment of significant Australian Defence Force elements on the ground in any such operation. No specific request has been put to us, however, at this stage.

  The bottom line remains that the action in Panguna should not be seen as incompatible or inconsistent with the dialogue process. But it is very important that that dialogue process gets some flesh put on the bones sooner rather than later, because that is the only way out of the impasse up there.