The search for the missing in Bougainville: The ICRC partners with authorities to find new solutions

Central Tracing Agency (CTA) / Right to Know/Truth / Transitional Justice

On 29 June 2023, the people of Bougainville welcomed an historic milestone in the search for those who went missing during the Bougainville conflict (1988–1998).

28 Nov 2023
Papua New Guinea,
Asia and the Pacific

On 29 June 2023, the people of Bougainville welcomed an historic milestone in the search for those who went missing during the Bougainville conflict (1988–1998). The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) opened the Office of the Missing in Bougainville (OMB), officially acknowledging the approximately 2,000 people who went missing and the needs of their families.

The creation of the OMB in Bougainville is a success story born of a partnership that has set a precedent for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its Central Tracing Agency (CTA) in providing technical support and helping local authorities build their capacities.

Just one year after the government first approached the ICRC to request support in setting up the OMB, it has already appointed key staff and created partnerships with local service providers. In addition, the government has made available a physical office and a budget of 500,000 Kina for 2023, and publicly declared its commitment to finding out what happened to those who went missing during the conflict.

A new approach to support

Bougainville is set to vote for its independence before 2027 and addressing the issue of missing persons is seen as key to achieving social cohesion in advance of the vote. There is strong political will to do so, with high-level authorities, community and religious leaders, affected families and many citizens all agreeing that this issue continues to undermine community well-being and harmony.

As Theonila Roka-Matbob, member for the Ioro Constituency in the ABG’s House of Representatives, explains: “There are so many people in Bougainville that need to find closure and heal from the pain. The establishment of the Office of the Missing in Bougainville with the guidance of the International Committee of the Red Cross is crucial for this to happen. If there are thousands of missing persons from all sides of the Bougainville crisis, just imagine the number of affected individuals and families. The impact of missing persons on families is not only an issue in Bougainville but there are also families in Papua New Guinea who are affected.”

When the Bougainville government first requested the ICRC’s support – to act as a technical adviser and an impartial intermediary in resolving missing persons cases – the ICRC’s presence in Bougainville had just been scaled back, with operational priorities in the region shifting towards other countries with more urgent needs. The CTA agreed to lend its support to the project, but has maintained a low-key presence, working with local networks and helping develop local capacities on an ad hoc basis.

The ICRC’s mission in Port Moresby, its office in Buka and the CTA’s Red Cross and Red Crescent Missing Persons Centre worked closely with Bougainvillean authorities to design the OMB and set out its functions and operations. Its success depended on there being a careful balance between adhering to international best practice and scientific standards and being respectful of local customs.

The CTA first became involved in March 2022 when a multidisciplinary team of experts from the ICRC and CTA carried out a socio-anthropological assessment. This ensured cultural appropriacy and a deeper understanding of the positions, wishes and desires of the authorities, affected families and communities. The aim of the project was to restore a sense of bel isi, which literally means “belly is easy” or a sense of peace.

The partnership with the Bougainville government in creating the OMB is a good example of a solution that capitalizes on the ICRC’s technical support while bringing together local partners and community voices. The collaborative solution allowed Bougainville to address the issue of missing persons in its community while respecting local customs and ensuring the families of the missing would support the work of the new OMB.

“Working in partnership with the authorities in Bougainville and establishing a Committee of the Missing made up of local networks and affected families was integral to the foundation of the OMB,” explains Jill Stockwell, the CTA’s head of structural support. “The families of missing people are the most knowledgeable about their needs and what should be included in the OMB’s programme. I am extremely hopeful that the office will restore a sense of peace within the community of Bougainville.”

Over the coming months, the CTA will work with the Australian Red Cross to provide training to the Papua New Guinea Red Cross, which has been tasked by the OMB to collect tracing requests throughout Bougainville. Work will begin in early 2024 to establish what happened to the missing. The CTA will also continue to help the OMB build its search capacity  and improve its data and information management processes, and will support a local NGO to provide the families of missing persons with mental health and psychosocial services. This will ensure the programme’s continuity after it officially ends in mid-2024.