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Designing Referendums for Peacemaking: The Case of Bougainville

Author(s): Ron Levy, Amelia Simpson

The use of referendums in conflict societies has increased significantly in recent decades. A planned referendum in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, is a current example. Referendums potentially help a conflict society to progress towards a peaceful resolution of its conflict even in the face of entrenched opposition by certain elites. And, because they can enjoy broad social perceptions of democratic legitimacy, referendums may also help to ensure against subsequent breach of any settlement reached. Yet, in practice referendums have not always been beneficial. Little institutional effort has gone toward improving the popular discourse leading up to the final vote. Standard referendum campaigns often merely amplify the voices of contending and entrenched political parties and elites. In a conflict society, where social polarization is pronounced, referendums thus risk aggravating, rather than ameliorating, tensions.

Research in deliberative democracy - with its concern for channeling disagreement into reasoned forms of persuasion - has yielded insights relevant to resolving violent inter-communal conflict. In this article we suggest the use of a specially-designed ‘deliberative referendum’ in Bougainville. Such a referendum may improve the conflicting parties' prospects of reaching common ground. Even a marginal improvement in the referendum’s deliberative quality may help to reconstruct the referendum from a potential destabilizing factor to a more effective peace-building tool. Yet, while we explore how a deliberative referendum might help to impel the Bougainville peace process toward successful resolution, we also consider the referendum’s hazards.

Read on SSRN

Centre: CIPL, DGAL

Research theme: Constitutional Law and Theory, Human Rights Law and Policy, Law, Governance and Development

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