Oceania | Politics | Security | Oceania

Human Rights Stagnate Under New Leadership in Papua New Guinea

Human rights continue to falter as the government claims to be writing a “new book” of prosperity for all citizens.

Joshua Mcdonald
Human Rights Stagnate Under New Leadership in Papua New Guinea
Credit: Pixabay

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape came to power last year with a promise to set straight the country’s troubled legacy of corruption, economic mismanagement and widespread human rights abuses, but progress remains slow according to a damning report released last week by Human Rights Watch

The organization’s annual report identifies a lack of accountability for police violence, weak enforcement of laws criminalizing corruption, and one of the highest rates of violence against women and children in the world, as ultimately continuing to foster a culture of impunity and lawlessness. 

“Although a resource-rich country, almost 40 percent of its population lives in poverty, which, together with poor health care, barriers to education, corruption, and economic mismanagement, stunts PNG’s progress,” wrote the author. 

Political turmoil engulfed Papua New Guinea’s parliament in May 2019 resulting in the resignation of Peter O’Neill after eight years as prime minister. O’Neill’s downfall began a month earlier when the then-finance minister, James Marape, resigned citing differences with O’Neill on the issue of local participation in the resources sector, and laws relating to wealth generation. High-profile MPs from resource-rich regions around the country backed Marape and resigned, ultimately leaving O’Neill no option but to step down. 

The day after O’Neill resigned, Marape was elected prime minister, receiving 101 votes to eight. In his maiden speech, he declared that he wanted Papua New Guinea to be “the richest black Christian nation” in the world and committed to major reforms. 

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Speaking at the Lowy Institute, Marape said the “old book of Papua New Guinea belongs to the past 44 years and is littered with chapters of few successes and more failures. We anticipate to anchor our new book for the next 44 years from lessons learnt in the first book.”

“We must provide an environment where quality education and health care are available to all levels, and where all Papua New Guineans can fulfill their true potential, regardless of where they have come from or where they now live,” he said. 

The Human Rights Watch report found that more than two-thirds of women in Papua New Guinea are affected by domestic violence, while up to 75 percent of children surveyed in some areas of Papua New Guinea have experienced violence at home. 

The healthcare system is severely underfunded and hard to access in rural areas, where an estimated one in 13 children die each year from preventable diseases. 

The United Nations estimates that a quarter of primary and secondary school-aged children do not attend school and only 50 percent of girls enrolled in primary school make the transition to secondary school.

According to media reports, between September 2018 and January 2019, 133 police officers had been investigated and 42 arrested, yet Human Rights Watch states that convictions remain rare outside of Port Moresby. 

To date, no police officers had been prosecuted for killing 17 prison escapees in 2017 and four prison escapees from Buimo prison in Lae in 2018. Police officers who killed eight student protesters in Port Moresby in 2016 have also not been held accountable.

Corruption is also widespread. A Transparency International report from last year found that Papua New Guinea remained “highly corrupt” and had made little to no progress on combatting corruption. Former prime minister O’Neill is currently fending off a warrant for his arrest on corruption charges. 

Despite the report’s findings, human rights lawyer Dr. Carolyn Graydon, who has more than 20 years of experience specializing in human rights, refugee law, justice reform and community and customary legal empowerment, says Papua New Guinea’s constitution is among the best in the world when it comes to enforcing human rights. 

“The PNG constitution has a whole section in the bill of rights dedicated to human rights,” she said. “Most importantly there is a provision of the constitution that provides for the legal enforcement of human rights.”

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Graydon points to the National Court’s implementation in 2011 of a mechanism in which citizens can directly petition the National Court through completing an “accessible, straightforward template,” where any person can set out the nature of their human rights complaint and submit it to the court. A judge then has 24 hours to review the complaint and determine whether or not to process it through a specialized human rights track in the court. 

“This is a very unusual, but positive mechanism,” she said. “Most other constitutions in the region have human rights provisions in them, but not necessarily an enforcement mechanism. So I do think that Papua New Guinea has one of the best constitutions, as far as human rights are concerned, because it does actually have that mechanism to enforce human rights.”

With more than 800 languages spoken among a population divided into around 10,000 ethnic clans, Papua New Guinea is one of the most diverse countries in the world. And like elsewhere in the Pacific, customary law often exists outside state mechanisms and varies between different ethnic groups, making it difficult for the government to monitor. 

Adding to this, Papua New Guinea is covered in dense rainforests and mountains and has a lack of viable public transport. This isolates much of the country’s rural population, who often aren’t able to attend schools, access hospitals or police stations, or receive other much needed resources.

Critics of Marape argue that he has put too much emphasis on reforming the economy and not enough on the country’s long history of human rights violations, but Graydon says it is part and parcel of trying to improve the situation for the citizens of Papua New Guinea in all aspects of life. 

“There are obviously very important tangible aspects of their human rights which are going to be more related to a commitment to increasing the capacity of the various state and non-state actors to provide protection and to meet people’s needs,” she said. “But there are also very important tangible aspects of those rights that will be directly related to the sector of the economy, and so strengthening human rights takes work by all sectors and may not always need to be done only through the state justice system.” 

Speaking at the Lowy Institute, Marape spoke triumphantly of his plans to stamp out corruption and of rebooting the economy through harnessing the nation’s vast resources.

“Now is the time to take the next step where we achieve true economic independence and determine what our future should be,” he said. “We must and will invest in technology and embrace innovation.”

“We have a pool of committed and capable workers. Now is the time to harness that opportunity, create growth, and enable wealth creation for all. In short, we must take back our country, our economy, and our own destiny.”

According to the World Bank, Papua New Guinea’s economy remains dominated by just two sectors: the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sector and the minerals and energy extraction sector. Since coming into power, the Marape administration has sought to prioritize growth in non-resource sectors, small and medium-sized businesses, and the informal economy.

But an Australian and New Zealand Banking Group report published last month warned that the economy remains very weak and that if the contribution of natural resources was taken out, the economy would likely fall into recession. 

Marape also understands that to effectively diversify the country’s asset base and increase employment, investment is needed. Electricity, telecommunications, road and other transport infrastructure remain critical to supporting private sector-led growth. 

That combined with the complex cultural dynamics deeply rooted in tribal and ethnic identity, traditional social institutions, and relationship to land, present Marape’s “new book” of Papua New Guinea, and along with it universally valued human rights, with daunting risks and perhaps lengthy delays.