Papua New Guinea | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Freedom in the World 2013

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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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General elections were held in June and July 2012, after months of legal battles between Peter O’Neill and Michael Somare, each of whom claimed to be the legitimate prime minister. O’Neill’s People’s National Congress Party was victorious, cementing O’Neill’s status as prime minister. In September, Papua New Guinea and Australia signed an agreement to reopen a processing center for asylum seekers.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) gained independence from Australia in 1975. The Autonomous Bougainville Government was created in 2005 following a multi-year, low-grade secessionist war in which landowners on Bougainville Island waged guerrilla attacks on a major Australian-owned copper mine, demanding compensation and profit-sharing. Natural-resource exploitation, including mining and logging, provide the bulk of government revenue, though economic growth has not brought greater political stability.

Prime Minister Michael Somare’s ruling National Alliance (NA) won 27 out of 109 seats in the 2007 parliamentary elections, and the 71-year-old Somare was chosen for a second five-year term.

In December 2010, Somare stepped down to face a leadership tribunal for filing improper financial statements. In March 2011, he was convicted on 13 charges of misconduct and sentenced to two weeks of suspension from office without pay. Days after sentencing, Somare traveled to Singapore for medical treatment. In May, his family announced his retirement due to poor health, and Parliament elected the NA’s Peter O’Neill prime minister in August. However, in October, Somare, who had returned to PNG, claimed that he never formally left office and sued to reclaim the top post. In December, the Supreme Court ruled that O’Neill’s election was unconstitutional and that Somare should be reinstated. The speaker of Parliament refused to implement the decision, and Parliament voted on December 21 to restrict anyone aged 72 or older from becoming or remaining prime minister, which effectively blocked Somare from returning to office.

In early 2012, the Supreme Court and Parliament each reaffirmed its position that Somare and O’Neill, respectively, was the rightful prime minister, causing considerable confusion. Each man, for example, appointed his own police commissioner and claimed control over security forces. In January, Francis Agwi, the defense force commander, declared support for O’Neill and was arrested by soldiers loyal to Somare; Agwi was released after one day, and Somare admitted to ordering the arrest. To restore calm, the Supreme Court ruled that Agwi should remain in his post until the dispute between Somare and O’Neill was resolved.

Somare filed another suit in February to reclaim the top post. After the Supreme Court agreed again to hear the case, O’Neill attempted to remove Chief Justice Salamo Injia, arresting him in March for allegedly obstructing a police investigation. The National Court put a stay on the charge and ordered Injia released. Within days, Parliament passed a law giving it the power to refer a judge to the governor-general for investigation. On May 20, the Supreme Court again ordered that Somare be restored as prime minister. Tensions heightened as O’Neill refused to comply, arguing that the decision was unconstitutional and threatening to arrest the three judges who made the ruling. After Parliament again elected O’Neill as prime minister, the government called for new general elections in June and July to resolve the impasse.

The elections were marked by violence; in Southern Highlands alone, 18 people were killed and many more injured before the polling stations even opened. Across the country, there were allegations of inadequate security, stolen or stuffed ballot boxes, underage voters, names absent from electoral rolls, and other irregularities. Post-election violence also occurred in many locations. Despite these problems, international observers from Australia, New Zealand, and other countries deemed the elections largely free and fair.

O’Neill’s People’s National Congress Party took the most seats—22—and O’Neill was tapped to form a new government. On August 8, O’Neill and his new cabinet were officially sworn in. With the legitimacy issue settled, the O’Neill government continued its push to undo some of the most controversial decisions of the Somare government. For example, Parliament repealed a measure that allowed a Chinese-owned mining firm to dump waste into the sea, and another that limited people’s rights to challenge government decisions in court. In November, a bill that would extend from 18 to 30 months the grace period before a vote of no-confidence could be held passed its first reading in Parliament. The change could increase political stability by ensuring that a government would serve at least half of its regular term before a no-confidence vote.

In September, PNG and Australia agreed to reopen a processing center in Manus Island for people seeking asylum in Australia. Australia agreed to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in rent, assistance, and funds to build, operate, and maintain the facility. The processing center, expected to hold about 600 asylum seekers, was host to 130 by year’s end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

PNG is an electoral democracy. Voters elect a unicameral, 109-member National Parliament to serve five-year terms. A limited preferential voting system allows voters to choose up to three preferred candidates on their ballots. The prime minister, the leader of the majority party or coalition, is formally appointed by the governor general, who represents Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

Major parties include the People’s National Congress Party, the Triumph Heritage Party, the NA, and the People’s Progressive Party. Political loyalties are driven more by tribal, linguistic, geographic, and personal ties than party affiliation. Many candidates run as independents, aligning with parties after they are elected.

Official abuse and corruption are widespread. The Task Force Sweep (TFS)—an anticorruption organization created in 2011—has launched investigations into many current and former officials, including Michael Somare and his wife. In November 2012, the TFS reported that it had investigated 52 cases of corruption and recovered some $27 million, while dozens of politicians and businesspeople had been arrested. According to the TFS, almost half of the country’s development budget from 2009 through 2011 had been lost to corrupt practices. PNG was ranked 150 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of speech is generally respected, and the media provide independent coverage of controversial issues such as alleged police abuse, official corruption, and opposition views. However, the government and politicians have occasionally used media laws and libel and defamation lawsuits to limit critical reporting. There are several private and state-owned local and national radio and television stations. Internet use is growing, but cost and lack of infrastructure limits its spread outside urban centers.

The government upholds freedom of religion. Academic freedom is generally respected, but the government does not always tolerate criticism.

The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally observes these rights in practice. Marches and demonstrations require 14 days’ notice and police approval. Many civil society groups provide social services and advocate for women’s rights, the environment, and other causes. The government recognizes workers’ rights to strike, organize, and engage in collective bargaining. In October 2012, miners in Enga province stopped working to demand improved safety.

The judiciary is independent. The legal system is based on English common law. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal and has jurisdiction on constitutional matters. Laypeople sit on village courts to adjudicate minor offenses under customary and statutory law. Suspects often suffer lengthy detentions and trial delays because of a shortage of trained judicial personnel.

Law enforcement officials have been accused of corruption, unlawful killings, extortion, rape, theft, the sale of firearms, and the use of excessive force in the arrest and interrogation of suspects. The correctional service is understaffed, prison conditions are poor, and prisoners have reported torture while in detention. Prison breaks are frequent, and reports of violent crimes continue to increase. Weak governance and law enforcement have allegedly made PNG a base for organized Asian criminal groups. In November 2012, the National Court ordered the government to pay nearly $1 million in compensation to individuals who claimed that police had violated their human rights.

Native tribal feuds over land, titles, religious beliefs, and perceived insults frequently lead to violence and deaths. Inadequate law enforcement and the increased availability of guns have exacerbated the problem. In 2012, ethnic clashes in the city of Lae displaced more than 700 people, and 15 were killed in tribal clash in the Eastern Highlands province. A number of people are killed and injured each year for allegedly practicing sorcery, which was criminalized in 1971. In July 2012, 29 were arrested for alleged sorcery-related killings and cannibalism in Madang province.

Discrimination and violence against women and children are widespread. Although domestic violence is punishable by law, prosecutions are rare; police commonly treat it as a private matter. Family pressure and fear of reprisal also discourage victims from pressing charges. Women are frequently barred from voting by their husbands. Women are underrepresented in government and other sectors. Three women were elected to Parliament in the 2012 elections, the highest number ever. In 2011, the government rejected a call by the United Nations to decriminalize homosexuality. The PNG is a source, transit, and destination country for forced prostitution and labor.