Across the region more and more communities are joining in condemnation of multinational companies that act with disregard and disdain for our environment and people. Rio Tinto is one company that is right at the top of the list. Despite frequent denials in the press, there is plenty of highly credible evidence that links the company to a range of war crimes on Bougainville.
At the forefront of debates on Rio Tinto’s complicity in war crimes, is Australian National University researcher, Anthony Regan – he also acts as legal advisor to the Autonomous Bougainville Government, paid for by AusAID. Regan is overseeing the drafting of legislation that could see Rio Tinto return to the island as early as next year.
To this day, Regan resolutely maintains that no “credible evidence” exists linking the company to war crimes on Bougainville; an opinion echoed by Bougainville Copper Limited’s (BCL) current Chairman, and Axel Sturm, the head of BCL’s European Shareholder group. Regan also argues existing estimations over the death toll on Bougainville are “fanciful” and should be revised down to 5,000 or less.
Opposing Regan’s controversial position is University of Ulster researcher, Kristian Lasslett. He has interviewed BCL’s management, and obtained a heap of internal company records, evidencing the allegations of complicity. Lasslett has also criticised Regan’s position on Rio Tinto, and has questioned the methodology Regan employed to claim that the military blockade – which was placed upon Bougainville in 1990 – may have produced health benefits that outweighed the deaths it caused.
Recently Regan and Lasslett went head to head on Facebook’s Bougainville Forum, this is what they said:
Regan Questions the Depth of Bougainville’s Suffering and Rio Tinto’s Alleged Complicity
“Kristian Lasslett is an intelligent researcher, who’s done impressive research through interviews and locating and analysing records. He also has his own strong views, and expresses them vigorously. I support his right to do that.”
“But in doing so, my own view is he at times misrepresents my views. As he knows, my comments – made 14 years ago, in 1999 – on deaths in Bougainville during the conflict that he often quotes, were in fact in part a response to a claim that more than 50,000 people had died, and dealt with the difficulty in accurately determining numbers of deaths in a particular category – that is, people whose deaths were caused or contributed to by the PNG blockade.”
“While the blockade undoubtedly did cause or contribute to many deaths, one of the difficulties I had experienced when discussing how to assess numbers involved is that many people who lived under blockade advised me (beginning with Theodore Miriung in October 1994) that in many ways health for many people living under the blockade was better than before the conflict, due to a range of factors (better diet etc.). “
“As for the documents filed in the US case against BCL, yes, I’ve read them, yes I’ve spoken with some litigants. I’ve also interviewed a number of people who signed affidavits in the case, who told me how those affidavits were prepared. But it would not be fair to them to discuss those issues here. Its on the basis of that work (which I aim publish in due course) that I still believe that credible evidence is yet to emerge. Perhaps such evidence will emerge one day, but I’m yet to see it.”
“But I believe my own views, based on the evidence available to me, and perhaps I’m being unfair to Kristian by suggesting he misrepresents me. Perhaps its just best to say we are both amongst the outsiders who are trying to better understand the complex history of Bougainville, one which neither of us experienced, and that we have some disagreements. And that’s alright.”
“Thank you Anthony for your measured and thoughtful response. And I agree we are indeed outsiders, who are just seeking a better understanding of a complex and wonderful part of the world to which we are both indebted. I apologise to others on the forum if we sound a little crass, two outsiders going on about something we did not directly experience. But in ways I will explain, the matters we have discussed are not only intrinsically important, in a profound moral sense, but effect our democracies too. Indeed, the history of Bougainville is deeply entwined with the region and the world.”
“Anthony, I am genuinely sorry to hear you remain unconvinced of BCL’s direct involvement in the military operations. The evidence is wide ranging, and readily available. For example, you note my published work features interviews with key company personnel. Indeed it does, this includes Robert Cornelius (MD, BCL), Paul Quodling (MD previous to Cornelius), Ken Perry (General Manager, BCL), Steve Jopling (GM, BCL), Colin Evanson (GM, BCL), Douglas Fishburn (GM of Bougainville Copper Foundation), Ian Johnson (MD CRAE Minerals PNG), in addition their opposite numbers in the PNG government including Rabbie Namaliu (PM), Ted Diro (Deputy PM), Ben Sabumei (Defence Minister), Paul Bengo (Secretary PM’s Dept), Jerry Singirok (PNGDF), Lima Dotaona (PNGDF), John Toguata (RPNGC) … to name just a few.”
“BCL’s logistic and strategic support for the military operation was acknowledged by a wide range of officials I interviewed – indeed I cant recall a single denial. And I have made the evidence available in easily accessible forums. As we know academic publications tend to be read by few.”
“Here is a quote from one BCL Manager:
“The reality was, ‘we [PNGDF/RPNGC] can’t do our thing because we haven’t got vehicles’. So we’d give them vehicles. ‘Ah we haven’t got radios so we can’t communicate’. So we’d give them two way radios. ‘Ah we can’t support our men over here, we haven’t got enough provisions’. So we’d put them in the mess, we’d feed them in the mess, we’d provide them with accommodation. We did everything they asked of us to make their life more comfortable, and better able to manage through, with transport, communications, provisions, whatever, fuel. You know we gave them everything, because as a far as we saw it we were hoping that they were going to solve the situation, so we could start operating again. So we supported them every way we could”
“This acknowledgement was confirmed by numerous PNG government officials. For example, one senior official told me: “We relied heavily on some of the civilian facilities provided by the company. They did everything, I mean we spent lots and lots of money, to provide backup support services for the operation. But the defence force was not properly equipped at all”.”
“The internal BCL records I have viewed (which include meeting minutes, internal memorandums and letters), and even put online, corroborate the oral testimony (these records feature in the US court case, and this was the documentary evidence I was referring to in the previous post, not the affidavits). Indeed, BCL was in weekly meetings with the PNGDF and members of Cabinet. You even had the MD of BCL suggesting preferred targets to the PM at a meeting on 13/7/1989, such as “Damien Damen the charismatic Cult Leader”, and telling the government “security force offensives [are] ok and should continue” (this is recorded in BCL meeting minutes), this was after the PNGDF had bombarded villages with mortars and strafed them from the air.”
“Indeed, a former ADF officer wrote: “The use of the mortar platoon on 10 July  at night on Guava village was irresponsible and indefensible … Mortar rounds often fell indiscriminately, wounding civilians and terrorising the local population … The PNGDF’s use of white phosphorous rounds (WP) attracts particular condemnation. WP burns the skin and can drift well beyond target areas”.”
“And as I have pointed out in my work. BCL officials were aware of the destructive ends to which this support was being put. They were informed of civilian deaths and mass village burnings. “
“Then we have the powerful civilian testimony – people witnessing troops arriving in their village in BCL trucks, burning homes, taking away the youth.”
“To my mind, direct admissions from the most senior levels in BCL and the PNG state corroborated by a thick file of BCL internal records (meeting minutes, memorandums, letters), counts as credible. To my mind, the growing body of testimony provided by victims is credible. I have never relied on the affidavits, for the reasons you allude to, they are court documents designed for a specific purpose.”
“But what pains me, in light of this evidence, is the impact denial has on the families who lost loved one, or who suffered displacement and property loss as a result of these actions; I have watched them shed tears, and each time BCL’s Chairman appears before the media denying their allegations, families have to endure further indignation. We would not allow a street offender to cheapen their victims, why should a large multinational be treated differently?”
“Thanks for your explanation re the death toll. Fair enough, I understand you felt the death toll had been inflated for political reasons (though my impression was you were trouble by a 20,000 estimation, not 50,000). At the same time it was never my intention to misrepresent you.”
“That said, the suggestion that the deaths caused by the blockade may have been outweighed by the health benefits of the blockade, in my view remains extremely problematic (one can’t simply cancel out the counting of human life in such a fashion). You made this statement to a parliamentary inquiry, it was an official forum of national/international significance. Only the most rigorous and thoroughly researched factual statements should, in my view, have been adduced in evidence. The method employed to offset alive versus dead, simply would never make it through peer review. And when the denial of a crime’s significant human impact is at stake, even greater weight is on the scholar to make sure their evidence is adduced with utmost rigour (especially if one tells the international media that current death toll estimates on Bougainville are “fanciful”: http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/stories/s422294.htm and should be revised down to 5,000 or less).”
“Of course, I entirely accept you were attempting, in good faith, to challenge possible methodological flaws in existing counting methods. But given your expertise lie in constitutional law, it may have been stretching things a little to challenge the findings of Medecins Sans Frontieres, Amnesty International, Community Aid Abroad and Bougainville’s own courageous medical professionals, who kept to their best of the ability records of the suffering and elevated deaths.”
“And it’s the human and moral gravity of your claim, made in a major national and international forums – including its impact on those who watched relatives suffer and die – which is the reason behind my critique, nothing more.”
“These are important points of contention. But I in no way wish to appear disrespectful towards your scholarly record. It speaks for itself, both with respect to Bougainville and PNG more generally. And you have organised some remarkable interventions, such as Bougainville: Before the Conflict, the latter is one of the most rich textual testaments available to the cultural and historical vibrancy of Bougainville.”
“We will have to agree to disagree on certain issues. But my point remains, the movement for accountability and justice – which is being spearheaded by many courageous Bougainvilleans, from all walks of life, along with some notable international actors – would benefit from your support, I hope in time it will come.”
“Many I have spoken to on Bougainville who suffered terribly as a result of the company’s actions, are not greedy or opportunistic people. They simply want the dignity of truth – a simple and unqualified statement by Rio Tinto, acknowledging BCL’s actions and apologising to those effected (and also from the Australian government). Untied efforts to repair the damage caused by these actions are also being called for; when I say untied I mean contributions to the island’s regeneration, without it being tied to the mine’s reopening, or indeed its expansion. They are separate issues. These are very elementary claims of justice that are enshrined in international law.”
“And Anthony you are right I have strong views which I express vigorously, I make no apologies for that, it is supported by extensive, pain-staking research. If our companies and governments are committing crimes abroad, it is a citizen’s duty, particularly those in the privileged position to know about these crimes, to stand in solidarity with the victims no matter where they are, or who they are. If we fail our democracy is diminished, and their right to justice denied.”