Human Rights in Asia-Pacific; Review of 2019 - Papua New Guinea


Inter-communal and election-related violence increased in several provinces, while violence by security forces remained endemic. A lack of resources, partly because of official corruption and fiscal mismanagement, hampered service delivery, including for children and victims of gender-based violence. With the closure of the refugee processing centre on Manus Island, refugees and asylum-seekers who had been forcibly sent there by the Australian authorities were moved to other sites, primarily in the capital, Port Moresby.


A non-binding referendum in the mineral-rich Autonomous Region of Bougainville took place in November, with voters overwhelmingly backing independence. Local level government elections were held in July, but were marred by violence in several provinces.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

The vast majority of refugees and asylum-seekers in Manus Island were moved to Port Moresby after the new government committed to closing operations in Manus and ending asylum-seeker processing by Australia. Almost 50 men who were determined to not qualify as refugees were held in very poor conditions in the Australian-funded Bomana immigration centre, where they were denied access to the outside world, and adequate food and medication, raising serious concerns for their health and safety. [1] The PNG government stated that they would not be released unless they agreed to return to their home countries, amidst concerns about the possibility of deportation, which could amount to refoulement given the unfair asylum process. Others were living in hotels, some of whom were awaiting resettlement to the United States or going through the interview process. Some 50 others accepted the government’s offer to allow them to settle in Papua New Guinea.

In May several men sent to Manus Island by Australia attempted suicide or self-harm, following Australia’s decision to close torture and trauma services and reduce health services there.[2]

Inter-communal violence

Inter-communal violence increased in Hela and Southern Highlands provinces, where the government declared states of emergency. During July at least 16 people, the vast majority women and children, were killed by men during tribal fighting in Hela province. Police stated that the attack was in reprisal for the killings of six people earlier in the month. According to the prime minister, there were fewer than 60 police officers for Hela’s population of 400,000. The province is rich in gas reserves, leading to tensions around the distribution of extraction revenues.

Children’s rights/violence against children

An August report by Save the Children found extremely high levels of violence against children in Papua New Guinea, including sexual violence and violent discipline in the home. Boys were more likely to experience physical punishment than girls. Violence occurred in the community, in schools, and by the police. Weak enforcement mechanisms and insufficient child protection services contributed to impunity for such violence.

Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence—including gang rape and other forms of sexual, and intimate partner violence—continued to be highly prevalent. Although violence against women is prohibited by law, few perpetrators were brought to justice. Instead, perpetrators often paid compensation to victims instead of facing trial. Sexual harassment of women in public places was also a concern. Impunity for killings and torture of women accused of sorcery by members of their communities remained a problem.

In May, a man in Western Highland Province killed his entire family—his wife, two daughters, and their 18-year-old baby-sitter—and was later taken into police custody.

Human rights defenders

Cressida Kuala, an environmental and women’s rights activist from Porgera, the site of a gold mine in the highlands of Enga Province, highlighted problems facing women in mining communities, including police brutality, rape by mine employees, and forced eviction and displacement. She and other women human rights defenders faced sexual violence from their communities linked to their advocacy of women’s rights.[3] Communities in the Porgera area also lacked access to clean water to meet their basic needs and were exposed to harmful chemicals from tailings (residue) dumped directly into rivers.

Emmanuel Peni, an LGBTI and environmental activist in Sepik, faced threats and violence by government and mining company officials because of his work to raise awareness about the dangers of mining exploration, including tailings in the Sepik River. His advocacy for LGBTI rights was complicated by the criminalization of homosexuality. The LGBTI community in urban areas were at high risk of extortion by the security forces.[4]

Police and security forces

Violence by the police, including killings, continued at a high level. In mid-September police beat to death a betel nut seller at a Port Moresby market when police were shutting down betel nut stalls. After a public outcry at least one police officer was charged with murder for the incident. In another incident in late October, police reportedly used live fire when chasing down a group of betel nut vendors in Port Moresby, injuring three of them.

Acknowledging the problem of police violence, and the related lack of public trust in police, senior metropolitan police official Anthony Wagambie, Jr, promised in September to “investigate all reported police brutality cases immediately and take whatever recommendations and actions deemed necessary according to the rule of law.”

[1] Papua New Guinea: Detainees Denied Lawyers, Family Access (news story, 14 November).

[2] Manus: Surge in suicide attempts illustrates crisis of Australian policy (news story, 24 May).

[3] Portrait of an activist: Cressida Kuala (30 May).

[4] Portrait of an activist: Emmanuel Peni (30 May).