So those that have been paying attention will know that there was a domestic dispute between Bougainville Copper Limited, the Government of Papua New Guinea and (some) Bougainvilleans. Things went bad very quickly and Bougainville is still picking up the pieces.
The conflict essentially centred on disputes over the distribution of profits arising from the mine, the environmental impacts of the mine and the influx of migrants. The conflict itself added another dimension when guns were introduced and the middle ground became no-man's land.
So where does Rio Tinto, one of the largest international mining corporations, fit into the picture? Well, as it happens, they own Bougainville Copper Limited, and some locals have connected the dots and filed a class action law suit against Rio Tinto in the United States.
How can they do that? Well, I won't drag you through the details, but a piece of legislation called the United States Alien Tort Claims Act allows foreign nationals to bring suits in the United States against companies that violate international law. And let me tell you, we are talking some serious allegations here…
In brief, the 22 Bougainvillean plaintiffs have alleged that improperly dumped waste rock and tailings from the Panguna mining operations harmed the island's environment and the health of its residents. They further alleged that Rio Tinto engaged in racially discriminatory labour practices at the mine by paying local black workers lower wages than white workers and by housing black workers in poor conditions.
If you think that's starting a fight, the plaintiffs have also argued that, because the mine was a joint venture between Rio Tinto and the PNG Government, and because Rio Tinto's threats led PNG to use military force against Bougainvilleans, Rio Tinto is responsible for human rights violations and war crimes committed during the Crisis.
Rio Tinto immediately counter-punched by challenging the basis for filing the case in the United States and after lots of dodging and weaving it has finally been decided that, yes, it's kosher to hear the case in the US and certain allegations (specifically the claims concerning crimes against humanity, war crimes and racial discrimination) were of universal concern and should be heard.
Now, it has taken nine years for the case to get this far, so don't expect too much in the near future, and even if they make it to the 12th round there's a nasty hook waiting for them… under PNG law it is illegal for compensation proceedings to be taken or pursued in a foreign court.
So this whole thing has barely started but it is clear that it is going to be controversial. At best this case will bring up issues that have yet to be dealt with in a public arena; at worst this case risks undermining Bougainville's progress on reconciliation and peace building. Time will tell.