Papua New Guinea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Beset by rising crime, economic mismanagement, and staggeringly high unemployment, Papua New Guinea turned for leadership to the man who led the nation to independence in the 1970s. In addition to dealing with crime and the economy, Sir Michael Somare faces the challenge of moving forward a peace process that ended 12 years of secessionist conflict on Bougainville Island.

This South Pacific country, consisting of the eastern part of New Guinea and some 600 smaller islands, achieved independence from Australia in 1975. Heavily dependent on natural resources, the young nation was plunged into crisis in late 1988 after miners and landowners on Bougainville Island began guerrilla attacks against the Australian-owned Panguna copper mine. The rebels demanded compensation and profit sharing from the mine, which provided 40 percent of the country's export revenues. By 1990, the rebels were waging a low-grade, armed struggle for an independent state on Bougainville, located 560 miles northeast of the capital, Port Moresby.

A short-lived cease-fire on Bougainville collapsed in 1996. The government that brokered the deal was forced to resign in 1997 amid a public outcry over a $27 million state contract with a foreign mercenary outfit to aid the army on Bougainville. In the ensuing parliamentary elections, outgoing prime minister Sir Julius Chan and 54 other lawmakers lost their seats. Many voters complained that official corruption and rising crime were keeping Papua New Guinea impoverished despite its abundance of minerals, forests, fisheries, and other natural resources.

Following two years of scandal-plagued government under Prime Minister Bill Skate, the government of Sir Mekere Morauta that took office in 1999 carried out economic reforms and reached a breakthrough peace deal on Bougainville. Morauta signed an accord in 2001 with Bougainville leader Joseph Kabui that called for the island to gradually receive autonomy ahead of a referendum on independence to take place in 10 to 15 years.

Morauta, a former central bank chief, also restored Papua New Guinea's relations with the International Monetary Fund and sold off some state assets. Amid strong resistance in 2001, however, he was forced to backtrack on plans to revive the economy by speeding up privatization and trimming the size of the army. Dozens of soldiers mutinied for 12 days that March, and students mounted a week-long antigovernment rally in June that ended with police shooting dead three protesters. Sir Michael Somare, 66, took the leadership reigns for the third time since independence following an election in 2002 that was marred by some 30 poll-related deaths and other violence and numerous administrative glitches. Poll-related thuggery and problems with the electoral roll dragged out the balloting for weeks after the June 15 start date. Somare formed a seven-party coalition government that controlled more than 40 of parliament's 109 seats.

Somare faces the challenge of keeping the Bougainville peace accord on track by encouraging the rebels to complete an ongoing disarmament process and by setting up an autonomous administration due to take office on the island in 2003. The cash-strapped central government also must deal with a worsening drought and provide relief to the thousands of villagers left homeless over the summer by a volcanic eruption on New Britain Island and a massive earthquake on the north coast. Meanwhile, plans are behind schedule for a $3.75 billion pipeline to transport natural gas from Papua New Guinea's southern highlands to the northeastern Australian state of Queensland. The pipeline is seen as a critical source of future revenues for Papua New Guinea, given that natural resource revenues currently are declining and there is virtually no new exploration. Some 40 percent of working-age Papua New Guineans lack jobs, and the country's annual population growth rate of 3.1 percent is one of the world's highest.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Papua New Guinea can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. The 1975 constitution vests executive powers in a prime minister and the cabinet. Parliament has 89 members who represent districts within the country's 20 provinces, and 20 who are elected on a province-wide basis. All lawmakers are elected for five-year terms.

Elections are free but are usually marred by some fraud and poll-related violence. The 2002 balloting was particularly violent. Some candidates reportedly used tribal gangs to intimidate voters, kidnap some poll officers, and steal, destroy, or tamper with ballot boxes, according to the London-based The Economist.

Since independence, most governments have been made up of unstable coalitions, and no prime minister has served a full term. Although lawmakers are elected in U.S.-style, winner-takes-all constituencies, Papua New Guinea has bucked the trend toward a two-party system that this electoral system tends to produce in other countries. Fifteen parties won at least 2 seats in the 2002 elections, led by Prime Minister Somare's National Alliance Party with 19.

Faced with a severe urban crime problem, Papua New Guinea's ill-equipped and poorly trained police force has committed grave rights abuses. "Criminal suspects, including those not carrying guns and only suspected of nonviolent crimes, are frequently shot dead by police, sometimes in disputed circumstances," the human rights group Amnesty International said in 2001. Moreover, some officers have been charged with raping female detainees. Police also often beat suspects while they are being arrested, interrogated, or held in custody awaiting trial, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. The government has prosecuted some officers for abuse.

In the rugged highlands, police have in recent years burned homes to punish communities suspected of harboring criminals or of fighting battles with other tribes. Conflicts between clans tend to be linked to insults, injuries, and disputes over landownership and boundaries. Rival tribes in the Southern Highlands Province signed a cease-fire in March to end eight months of fighting in and around the town of Mendi that claimed dozens of lives, Radio New Zealand reported.

Papua New Guinea's judiciary is independent, and defendants receive fair trials, according to the U.S. State Department report. However, the resource-strapped judiciary's high caseload has meant that suspects often spend long periods in detention before their trials, in some cases more than two years. The country's crumbling jails are overcrowded and provide poor basic services to inmates, the U.S. State Department report said.

The government has made few efforts to prosecute soldiers, army-backed paramilitary fighters, and rebel forces accused of summary killing and torture during the Bougainville conflict. By some estimates, at least 20,000 civilians and fighters died during the conflict, mostly as the result of malnutrition and disease.

Papua New Guinea's private press carries hard-hitting reports on alleged official corruption, police abuse and other sensitive matters, though newspapers have low circulation. Radio is a key source of information given the country's low literacy rate and many isolated villages. The state-run National Broadcasting Corporation's two radio networks suffer from inadequate funding and deteriorating equipment. The private NAU-FM network serves Port Moresby and is expanding into other areas, while smaller stations serve other cities. Television reception is limited mainly to Port Moresby and provincial capitals.

Citing concerns of spectator violence, police rarely give approval for demonstrations. Despite limited resources, nongovernmental welfare and advocacy groups are active and outspoken. Among the most prominent is the International and Community Rights Advocacy Forum, which works on human rights and environmental issues.

Women increasingly are in leadership positions in business, the professions, and the civil service, though they continue to hold relatively few senior posts in government and politics. Women also face unofficial discrimination in many areas of daily life, according to the U.S. State Department report. The report also said that gang rape and domestic violence continue to be serious and prevalent problems, and that officials prosecute few cases of violence against women. Most tribal communities view domestic violence as a private matter, while some settle rape cases by having the accused give money or goods to the victim's family. Traditional customs of allowing men to have several wives and of paying a price for brides persist in some highland areas.

Papua New Guinea's trade unions are independent, and workers routinely bargain collectively. The government poorly or selectively enforces laws on minimum wages, working hours, and anti-union discrimination, the U.S. State Department report said. The International Labor Organization has called on the government to repeal labor law provisions allowing the government to strike down wage agreements or arbitration awards that it feels undermine government policy or the national interest. Roughly half of the 250,000 wage-earning workers are unionized.

Papua New Guinea's leaders face the challenge of nation-building in a society where roughly 1,000 tribes speak more than 800 distinct languages, and where extreme social and economic disparities create fault lines between the cities and isolated highlands. Some 85 percent of Papua New Guineans live in remote villages and are subsistence or small-scale farmers.