Is the world about to gain a new sovereign state? In December, the results of an independence referendum made it clear: 98 percent of voters in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville chose independent statehood.
Few Americans might be able to locate this on a map — the main island (Bougainville) and a series of smaller islands sit between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. These 9,438 square kilometers are home to a population of around 250,000, with some 25 languages spoken across the region.
Other contemporary secessionist movements have attracted more media attention — think Scotland, Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, for instance. But Bougainville seems well on track to enter the narrow gate into the club of sovereign states.
So how has Bougainville gotten this far, when so many other aspiring nations have failed? And what happens next? Here’s what you need to know about the road to independence.
Who gets to join the ‘sovereignty club’?
Winning independence is not easy. In my book “Age of Secession: The International and Domestic Determinants of State Birth,” I tracked 403 secessionist movements over the past 200 years. Of these, 60 are active. However, only a minority of these movements ever win independence. Many fade away — some movements die violently.
The contemporary hallmark of independent sovereign statehood is a full seat in the United Nations General Assembly. Much like a club, there is an admissions process in which at least nine of the 15 Security Council members have to approve of the application without any vetoes from the five permanent members — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States. The newest of the U.N.’s 193 member nations include South Sudan (admitted in 2011), Montenegro (2006) and Timor-Leste (2002).
The single biggest obstacle to a secessionist movement, however, is whether the home country favors the secession. If that state gives its blessing, as Serbia did with Montenegro, then U.N. admittance is nearly guaranteed because the Security Council typically abides by that decision.
Where the home state is resistant, the secessionists typically seek international support to apply pressure on the home state to negotiate — or circumvent its wishes entirely and recognize the breakaway region. As the case of Kosovo demonstrates, achieving full recognition in the absence of home state support is difficult. But in Bougainville’s case, the Papua New Guinea government seems unlikely to challenge or deny the referendum results.
Background on Bougainville
The 1886 Anglo-German Agreement separated Bougainville, which is culturally and geographically a part of the Solomon Islands. Instead, Bougainville was lumped together with the diverse set of islands and cultures that would eventually become the independent state of Papua New Guinea in 1975.
The secessionist pressures in Bougainville that erupted in 1988 led to a 10-year civil war that killed between 15,000 and 20,000 people — roughly 10 percent of the population — and destroyed the capital of Arawa and most of the administrative infrastructure. This was the longest-running conflict in the South Pacific since World War II and produced a lost generation of Bougainvilleans who grew up in the context of war and without a formal education.
The 2001 Peace Agreement was the product of war weariness on both sides and mounting international pressure to end the violence. The central feature of the Peace Agreement was a referendum on independence, to be held in the future, between 2015 and 2020, when passions would have cooled.
What the 2019 referendum said
The referendum ballot offered a choice between independence or greater autonomy within Papua New Guinea. In contrast to the 2014 Scottish Referendum that was held in one day, the Bougainville referendum took place over two weeks between Nov. 23 and Dec. 7. The additional time was necessary because the 828 polling stations were spread across a rugged geography covering numerous remote communities.
This is a nonbinding referendum, and the Papua New Guinea Parliament will decide the final outcome. But given the planning that went into the referendum and perceived legitimacy that surrounds it, it will be difficult for the Papua New Guinea government to deny the clear vote for independence without risking further conflict.
What are the lessons from Bougainville?
How has Bougainville come so close to obtaining the sovereign statehood that eludes so many others? After all, it is not clear that the Bougainvilleans are any more deserving of statehood than the Uighur, the Kurds, the West Papuans or other secessionist movements, and the region is arguably less economically viable than Catalonia.
Several factors stand out. One is that the secessionists were able to fight the Papua New Guinea forces to a stalemate. Bougainville was the location of an intense battle during World War II. According to on-site interviews I conducted with former guerrilla leaders, the rebels later refurbished and utilized leftover American and Japanese weaponry. Using insurgency tactics and captured equipment, they prevented the Papua New Guinea forces from winning.
Second, the secessionists won a degree of international support, particularly from Australia. The secessionists’ Sydney-based spokesperson, Moses Havini, explained in a personal interview that he gradually garnered sympathy in the Australian media by showing photos of the casualties and by using language regarding human rights and Australia’s peacekeeping role in the region.
Ultimately, Papua New Guinea could not resist international pressure to negotiate with the secessionists. After a failed and scandalous attempt to bring in the private security firm Sandline International to defeat the rebels, the Papua New Guinea government yielded to domestic and foreign concerns and opened up negotiations that ended with the 2001 Peace Agreement.
This story shows one path to statehood. But Bougainville’s violent past seems a world away from the more institutionalized and peaceful approach in Scotland and Catalonia. In my research with Louis Wasser, we found that violence does not make a secessionist movement more likely to succeed. As Tanisha Fazal writes, however, some secessionists may believe that violence pays.
Ryan Griffiths is an associate professor in the department of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. His recent research focuses on secessionist strategy.