Freedom in the World
Papua New Guinea
In August 2011, Peter O’Neill became prime minister after Michael Somare stepped down amid corruption charges and health problems. In October, Somare claimed that he had never formally left office. Although the Supreme Court in December ruled that O’Neill’s election was unconstitutional and Somare should be reinstated, the speaker of Parliament continued to recognize O’Neill as prime minister, in defiance of the court’s ruling.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) gained independence from Australia in 1975. In 1988, miners and landowners on Bougainville Island began guerrilla attacks on a major Australian-owned copper mine, and by 1990, the islanders’ demands for compensation and profit-sharing became a low-grade secessionist war. Australia and New Zealand brokered a cease-fire in 1998 and a peace treaty in 2001, which called for elections for an autonomous Bougainville government (ABG) and a referendum on independence in 10 to 15 years. The first election for an ABG was held in May and June 2005.
Prime Minister Michael Somare’s ruling National Alliance (NA) won 27 of the 109 Parliament seats in July 2007 elections, and the 71-year-old Somare was chosen for a second five-year term. The elections were marred by many reports of fraud, lost ballots, and attacks on journalists and candidates.
Natural-resource exploitation, including mining and logging, provide the bulk of government revenue, though strong economic growth has been overshadowed by increasing levels of violence and poverty, while public health, education, and infrastructure has also suffered. Gun battles, youth violence, clan wars, sorcery-related violence, rape and domestic abuse are not uncommon. In October 2011, a lawmaker was formally charged with the 2010 rape of a 14-year old girl. In November, two days of youth rioting and ethnic violence in Lae, PNG’s second biggest city, left more than a thousand people homeless.
In December 2010, Somare stepped down to face a leadership tribunal for allegedly failing to file complete financial statements between 1993 and 2004. Although legally he remained prime minister, he appointed Deputy Prime Minister Sam Abal as acting prime minister for the duration of the investigation. In March 2011, Somare was found guilty on 13 charges of misconduct; he was sentenced to two weeks of suspension from office without pay, beginning on April 4, but was allowed to keep his position as a member of Parliament. In mid-April, Somare traveled to Singapore to seek medical treatment, and his family in late June announced his retirement as prime minister due to poor health. Abal attempted to stay in power, but faced internal party challenges. On August 2, Parliament elected Peter O’Neill prime minister. In October, Somare claimed that he had never formally left office and sued to regain his position. On December 11, the Supreme Court ruled that O’Neill’s election by Parliament had been unconstitutional and Somare should be reinstated. However, the speaker of Parliament continued to recognize O’Neill as prime minister at year’s end, in defiance of the court’s ruling. In an attempt to prevent Somare from continuing his court challenge or competing in future elections, Parliament voted 68 to 3 on December 21 to restrict anyone aged 72 or older from becoming or remaining prime minister; the law was made retroactive to August 1, 2011.
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 NA, the United Resources Party, the Papua New Guinea Party, 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 and align with parties after they are elected.
Official abuse and corruption are serious problems. In April 2010, in response to allegations of corruption involving lawmakers and senior officials, legislators voted unanimously to grant themselves immunity from any charges brought by the ombudsman’s office. PNG’s high commissioner to Australia reported in March 2011 that half of the $450 million in annual Australian assistance is lost to systemic fraud. That same month, the Public Accounts Committee found that only 10 of about 1,140 government entities maintain records sufficient to account for their expenditures.
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who has pledged to fight corruption, created an elite anti-corruption investigative team in August 2011 with a budget that stood at $4.2 million by year’s end. One of its first tasks was to investigate the alleged misappropriation of $849 million in public funds within the National Planning and Monitoring Department. The government also dismissed the director of the Independent Public Business Corporation in August for making unapproved and illegal payments and investments. Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked PNG 154 out of 183 countries surveyed.
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 stations 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. 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. Marches and demonstrations require 14 days’ notice and police approval.
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. In April 2011, two police officers were charged with the murder of a detainee; the cases were pending at year’s end. Prison breaks are frequent, and incidents of street and violent crimes continued to increase in 2011. In May, 91 violent prisoners escaped with high-power weapons from the jail armory in the Southern Highlands. Weak governance and law enforcement have allegedly made PNG a base for organized Asian criminal groups.
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.
Discrimination and violence against women and children are widespread. Although domestic violence is punishable by law, prosecutions are rare, as police commonly treat it as a private matter, and family pressure and fear of reprisal discourage victims from pressing charges. Women are frequently barred from voting by their husbands. Only one woman sits in Parliament. In December 2011, lawmakers adopted constitutional amendments that would create 22 seats reserved for women in Parliament. However, two pieces of enabling legislation defining the size of the new electorate, which are required for the amendment to go into effect in time for the 2012 elections, had not been passed by year’s end. In October 2011, the government rejected a call by the United Nations to decriminalize homosexuality.