The introduction of this policy is proof of Bougainville's commitment to actively respond to the needs of the affected families and communities.
On May 31, 2023, the Bougainville Executive Council, composed of the president and members of the cabinet, adopted the Missing Persons Policy, which establishes the Office of the Missing in Bougainville (OMB). This was a historic occasion and a milestone in Bougainville's journey towards officially acknowledging and addressing the issue of persons who went missing during the Bougainville conflict. The adoption of this policy demonstrates the existence of political will in Bougainville to address, through active engagement with all parties involved, the painful legacy of the conflict for the families of missing persons.
A notable aspect of this policy is its recognition of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a technical adviser and impartial intermediary in the resolution of missing persons cases. This acknowledgement confirms Bougainville's willingness to seek the expertise and support of a trusted humanitarian organization with extensive experience in this field. The ICRC's mission in Port Moresby, its office in Buka, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Missing Persons Centre worked closely together with Bougainvillean authorities in designing the OMB – defining its functions and operations. They were also crucially involved in driving the adoption of the Missing Persons Policy.
The policy is not merely an empty rhetorical gesture. It has secured the funds and human resources necessary to sustain the OMB's operations, such as exhaustive and well-coordinated searches for missing persons, for five years. The policy also addresses various legal and administrative matters and aims to forge partnerships with local stakeholders to develop much-needed dialogue with families of missing people and others affected, while providing them with mental health and psychosocial support.
Recognizing the importance of inclusivity, the policy also establishes the Bougainville Committee on the Missing, which will ensure the formal involvement of missing persons' families, veterans, community leaders, other members of civil society, and churches. By granting them an advisory role, the committee will foster collaboration and create a platform for collective decision-making, thereby ensuring that the voices of all concerned parties are heard and given due weight.
During the Bougainville conflict, which lasted from 1988 to 1998, approximately 2,000 individuals went missing. Very little has been done to address their plight since the signing of the peace agreement in 2001. However, by adopting the Missing Persons Policy and establishing the OMB, Bougainville has taken a significant step towards helping families of missing persons learn the fate and whereabouts of their relatives, enabling them to bury their relatives' bodies or remains where possible and desired, in accordance with local customs and beliefs.
The introduction of this policy is proof of Bougainville's commitment to actively respond to the needs of the affected families and communities. By acknowledging the moral and ethical imperative to address the issue of missing persons, despite the passage of decades, and by seeking to involve all concerned parties in working together to establish the whereabouts of missing persons, Bougainville serves as a beacon of hope. It sends a powerful message of hope to the affected communities and serves as an inspiration for other parts of the world facing similar challenges.
On 29 June 2023, the Autonomous Bougainville Government inaugurated the Office of Missing Persons, underscoring the government’s commitment to addressing the profound impact on families of spending decades not knowing what happened to their missing family members. The strictly humanitarian purpose of the office is to provide solace to these families and foster a sense of peace and reconciliation in the community. It was established under the region’s new Missing Persons Policy in order to implement that policy. The office has partnered with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Central Tracing Agency’s Red Cross and Red Crescent Missing Persons Centre. Under the memorandum of agreement they signed, the partners will provide technical support to boost local capacity and ensure that the optimum approach is taken to handling missing persons cases.
Alongside the inauguration, a series of high-level meetings were held between representatives of the ICRC’s mission in Papua New Guinea, the Missing Persons Centre and members of the government of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, including President Ishmael Toroama, Attorney General Ezekiel Masatt and Speaker of the House of Representatives Simon Pentanu, as well as various other ministers and members of parliament and members of the parliament of Papua New Guinea. The discussions, which were positive and enthusiastic, further emphasized the collaborative nature of the undertaking and demonstrated a collective determination to co-design the establishment of the mechanism, conduct a meaningful search process and provide answers to the full extent possible to the families whose loved ones are missing.