The pace at which new countries are created has slowed dramatically since the heady days of decolonisation. Only four new members have been admitted to the United Nations this century (and one of those, Switzerland, was not newly independent); the most recent, South Sudan, more than eight years ago.
But there are still prospects. Readers will be familiar with the cases of Catalonia and Scotland. Closer to home, the French territory of New Caledonia held a referendum on independence last year; it was defeated, but with a margin close enough to keep the issue alive.
And now, starting tomorrow and stretching over two weeks, another south Pacific territory is voting on independence: Bougainville, governed by Papua New Guinea since its independence in 1975, is finally holding the long-promised referendum. Voters will simply be asked “Do you agree for Bougainville to have: (1) Greater Autonomy (2) Independence?”
Despite the fact that Australia was the colonial power for sixty years, Bougainville has had even less coverage in our media than New Caledonia. It’s perhaps symbolic that Firefox’s spellcheck doesn’t recognise “Bougainville” as a word. So a little background is in order.
Geographically, Bougainville is part of the Solomon Islands group. When European colonisation came in the late nineteenth century, Britain occupied the islands in the south and Germany those in the north. Then in an 1899 treaty, in return for concessions elsewhere, Germany yielded most of its claim to the British – leaving only Bougainville, which it administered as part of German New Guinea.
The Germans were driven out in the First World War and replaced by Australian control, which lasted (apart from a short period of Japanese occupation) until Papua New Guinea was given independence, with Bougainville as one of its 19 provinces. The rest of the Solomon Islands, after decades as a British protectorate, became independent three years later in 1978.
In the circumstances, no-one should have been surprised that a secessionist movement quickly developed, as in other parts of the world plagued by artificial colonial-drawn boundaries. It led to a confused and often bloody civil war than lasted for most of the 1990s. Eventually a peace agreement established an autonomous regional government for the island, with the promise of a referendum on independence to be held by 2020.
But there’s a catch. Unlike in New Caledonia (and for that matter Scotland), the referendum is explicitly stated to be non-binding. If the Bougainvilleans vote for independence – and it’s virtually certain that they will, probably by a very large margin – the Papua New Guinean government is only committed to negotiate on the question, reserving to itself the final decision.
If the vote is as one-sided as observers expect, it will be impossible to deny the region independence indefinitely. But it could be delayed for several years – which might give Bougainville some more time to build up its institutions and infrastructure, but might also breed resentment and mistrust.
The Bougainville conflict has been an inflammatory political issue in Papua New Guinea for most of its history. Current prime minister James Marape, who replaced Peter O’Neill earlier this year, is said to be more sympathetic to the Bougainvilleans. The organisation of the referendum, while logistically messy, seems to have proceeded without any serious civil disturbance.
Bertie Ahern, former Irish prime minister, has been appointed head of the referendum commission. Writing yesterday in the Guardian he was upbeat about the process, saying that he believes “the process will be a credible one, free of the fear and intimidation once wrought by weapons of war.”
But all the talk of “reconciliation” cannot hide the fact that independence is not something susceptible to compromise – nor the fact that self-determination has powerful enemies, in the region as elsewhere.
Results are expected to be available in the week before Christmas.