Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2016, 11:51 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1998 - Papua New Guinea

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 26 February 1999
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1998 - Papua New Guinea, 26 February 1999, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) comprises some 1,000 tribes and over 800 distinct languages in a population of about 4 million. It has a federal parliamentary system, based on universal adult suffrage with periodic free and fair elections, and has an independent judiciary.

The Government has constitutional authority over the Defense Force (PNGDF), the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC), and intelligence organizations. Members of the security forces committed serious human rights abuses.

The economy relies heavily on the export of minerals, hydrocarbons, tropical timber, and tree crops such as coffee, cocoa, and copra and national earnings fell steeply during the year as a result of drought and the worldwide decline in most commodity prices. A total of 85 percent of the population resides in isolated villages and engages in subsistence and smallholder agriculture. For a majority of citizens, income and literacy are at a low level, and infant and maternal mortality rates are high.

The Government continued to be responsible for human rights abuses, although the conclusion of a cease-fire on Bougainville in October 1997 and progress in peace negotiations led to the end of abuses arising from the secessionist conflict. However, there was no progress in the investigation and prosecution of those accused of previous abuses in the province. There continued to be credible reports that police committed extrajudicial killings and beat suspects. New police management took measures to improve police training and discipline, and authorities' infringements on citizens' privacy rights were reduced, but not eliminated. The Government on occasion investigated allegations of abuse and prosecuted those believed responsible. Prison conditions remain poor and reductions in the number of court sittings increased pretrial detention periods for many persons. The Government continued to limit freedom of assembly, although only one group was denied a permit to demonstrate. Extensive discrimination and violence against women, discrimination against the disabled, and violence between tribes remain serious problems, and abuse of children appears to be becoming more prevalent.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Several instances of killing by police were reported during the year. According to police reports, most occurred during gunfights with criminal suspects who were resisting arrest. However, at least one resulted when a constable fired into, rather than over, a rioting crowd. He was charged and is expected to be tried.

All police shootings are investigated by the police department's internal affairs office and reviewed by a coroner's court. If the court finds that the shooting was unjustifiable or due to negligence, the police officers involved are tried. Families of persons killed or injured by police in such circumstances also may challenge the coroner's finding in the National Court, with the assistance of the Public Solicitor's Office. Such a complaint was brought by the family of a habitual criminal who was shot and killed by police in East Sepik province. The coroner's court found that the shot was fired to prevent the suspect from escaping and that the killing was unintentional. The policeman is to be tried for manslaughter. As part of efforts to improve police discipline, the new Commissioner of Police ordered the renewed investigation of dormant cases of serious offenses involving police officers.

Cases of accidental shootings of bystanders by police during police operations are also investigated and reviewed by a coroner's court. According to police statistics, during the past 10 years, 7 such cases were referred to the National Court for trial. To date, two of those cases have been decided and the police personnel were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The other cases were still pending a decision at year's end.

There was no progress in the investigation of the 1996 killing of Theodore Miriung, Premier of the progovernment Bougainville Transitional Government. Despite clear indications that members of the progovernment resistance and the PNGDF were involved, no arrests were made.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution forbids torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment; however, police often beat suspects during arrests, and allowed members of the public to beat suspects as well. A man in Eastern Sepik province sued police for beatings that he said were administered to him in an unsuccessful attempt to extract a confession. Members of the public also complained to the press of abusive treatment and theft of property by police who manned highway roadblocks. Police management mounted undercover operations to bring this abuse under control.

Although police management emphasized good community relations throughout the year, police and villagers clashed in Hanuabada, Port Moresby on January 3 with both sides claiming provocation and brutality. Several people were injured and property destroyed.

Prisons are overcrowded and understaffed and are unable to provide adequate medical care or food to inmates. Conditions are life threatening. Many prisoners as well as guards do not have uniforms, making it difficult for outsiders to distinguish between the two. Authorities closed several prisons during the year as the result of deterioration and neglect. Inmates were either moved elsewhere or released. Outbreaks of typhoid were reported at some prisons.

The Government permits prison visits by human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The courts generally enforce constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest and detention. However, these protections were weakened by the 1993 Internal Security Act (ISA). Amendments to existing legislation provide that judicially issued warrants are no longer required when authorities suspect that a person has committed an ISA offense or certain other offenses. Under 1993 amendments to the Bail Act and the Criminal Code, only National or Supreme Court judges may grant bail in certain criminal cases involving firearms. In all other cases, bail may be granted unless the judge rules otherwise. Suspects who are arrested have the right to legal counsel, to be informed of the charges against them, and to have their arrests subjected to judicial review.

Due to limited police and judicial resources and a high crime rate, suspects are often held in pretrial detention for a long time, particularly in rural areas. Pretrial remand is subject to strict judicial review through continuing pretrial consultations, especially at the National Court level. Nonetheless, cases are frequently delayed for months awaiting results of police investigations. Also circuit court sittings were less frequent because of budget difficulties, further delaying the decision of cases.

Exile is prohibited by the Constitution and is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the courts are independent of executive, legislative, and military authorities. At times political interests interfere with due process. For example, following allegations in Parliament that a politician had made an illegal videotape of his sexual activity with an underage girl, two police officers from another city enticed the girl allegedly involved from her home, took her to a second jurisdiction where they charged her with an offense, and then took her to a third jurisdiction where she was committed for trial. The man involved in the case was charged much later and at year's end had not yet been committed for trial. Police management stated that it did not instruct the officers to arrest the girl and is investigating the circumstances.

The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal and holds original jurisdiction on constitutional matters. The National Court hears most cases and appeals from the lower district courts established at the provincial level. There are also village courts headed by lay persons, who judge minor offenses under both customary and statutory law.

The legal system is based on English common law. The Constitution provides for due process, including a public trial, and the court system generally enforces these provisions. Defendants have the right to an attorney. Legal counsel is provided either by the Public Solicitor's office or by the Law Society upon the recommendation of the Public Solicitor's office for those accused of serious offenses who are unable to afford counsel. "Serious offenses" are generally defined as felony charges or any case heard in either the National or district court (as opposed to the village or magistrate courts). Defendants and their attorneys may confront witnesses, present evidence, plead cases, and appeal convictions.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The authorities generally respect citizens' privacy rights, although there were instances of abuse, such as the police destruction of property reported at Hanuabada and the seizure of property from vehicles (see Section 1.c.).

Although provisions in the Constitution require warrants, the police continued to conduct warrantless searches and raids.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for free speech, including freedom of the media, and the Government generally respects this freedom in practice.

The media provided independent coverage and analysis of major issues, including accusations of corruption and immoral behavior directed at leading political figures.

The combined circulation of two daily English-language newspapers is less than 60,000. Two weekly newspapers, one in English and one in Pidgin (the national lingua franca), are also published. All freely express a variety of editorial viewpoints and report on controversial issues such as alleged abuses by police and security forces, cases of alleged corruption by government officials, Bougainville insurgent views, etc. A Malaysian firm, which has invested heavily in the country's timber industry, owns one of the dailies; the newspaper publishes little on the controversial subjects of logging and forestry, but is generally independent and unbiased on other issues.

The television broadcasting company, EM-TV, is independent. Television reception is mostly limited to the Port Moresby area. The government-owned National Broadcasting Corporation owns two radio networks whose effectiveness is limited by inadequate funding and deteriorating equipment. A privately owned radio network, NAU-FM, is popular in Port Moresby and is expanding into other areas of the country.

The Government respects academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly; however, the Government limits this right in practice. Public demonstrations require police approval and 7-days' notice. A group that wished to march in support of independence for the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya was denied a permit to demonstrate.

The Constitution provides for freedom of association and the Government generally respects this right in practice. However, in December, acting on instructions from the Department of Foreign Affairs, police forcibly removed a sign identifying the location of the Port Moresby office of an Irian Jayan separatist group. The authorities did not otherwise interfere with the group, and the office remains open. Associations that wish to open a bank account and conduct financial transactions are required to register for this purpose. The process of registration may be slowed by bureaucratic inefficiency, but there is no policy of denying registration. International affiliation of church and civic groups is freely permitted.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government does not restrict freedom of movement within and outside the country. Movement within Bougainville is free for all groups and internally displaced persons are free to return to their homes. However, some are reluctant to do so until police protection and delivery of basic services is improved. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are less than 50 documented Bougainville refugees in the Solomon Islands. No more than 500 additional Bougainvilleans are believed to be temporarily sheltering in the Solomon Islands of whom about 250 are residing in Red Cross­administered care centers. The Government negotiated agreements with the Government of the Solomon Islands to establish the means for traditional border crossers in southern Bougainville and the northern Solomon Islands to pass easily between the two countries.

The Government provides first asylum for approximately 3,000 persons who have fled from the neighboring Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. The Government cooperates with the UNHCR in assisting the Irian Jayans who live in the East Awin refugee camp in Western Province and has administered the camp since 1996, when the UNHCR office closed. The Government has a policy of limited integration for Irian Jayans with certain skills or other qualifications, who are accorded limited residency status and are permitted to leave the refugee settlement. Those who violate conditions of their refugee status can be repatriated. There were no known forced repatriations of Irian Jayans to Indonesia. Several thousand traditional border crossers live in the border area and move freely between the two countries.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens freely exercise their right to change their government through direct elections with a secret ballot and universal adult suffrage. Voters elect a unicameral parliament with 109 members from all 19 provinces and the National Capital District. Any citizen can stand for election. Because of the high number of candidates for Parliament, some members have won election with less than 10 percent of the total votes cast.

The most recent general election was held in June 1997. Fifty­five of the 109 seats in Parliament changed hands. A coalition government, led by Prime Minister Bill Skate, was formed following the election and continued in office in 1998. However, some coalition partners changed and a number of individual Members of Parliament changed sides within the Parliament during the period.

The law provides that a losing candidate may dispute the election of the winning candidate by filing a petition with the National Court. Such petitions may question actions of the candidate and his supporters or allege malfeasance by the election officials. The procedure is fair, but is times consuming and expensive both to initiate and to defend. Following the 1997 election, 88 such petitions were filed. The majority of complaints were made against winning candidates or their supporters. The court accepted 40 of the petitions for trial. As of mid-September, the National Court had tried 33 of those cases. Of the nine cases decided against the declared winners, only two have resulted in a change in the incumbent in Parliament. The other seven cases have been appealed to the Supreme Court.

Although there are no legal barriers to the participation of women in political life, they are underrepresented in senior positions in government and politics. Two women were elected to Parliament in the 1997 elections.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

There are no official barriers to the formation of human rights groups. The Government cooperates with human rights NGO's, but sometimes is slow in responding to their requests for information. The International and Community Rights Advocacy Forum, formed in 1993, concentrated on human rights and the environment.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for equal protection under the law irrespective of race, tribe, place of origin, political opinion, color, creed, religion or sex. Despite these constitutional and other legal provisions, women often face discrimination.

Extreme geographic diversity prevents any one tribe or clan from dominating the country. The democratically elected government, based on loose coalitions, has consistently avoided favoring any group. Virtually all citizens share Melanesian ethnicity, and violence between groups is not ethnically based. Skirmishes and conflicts tend to be based on disputes between clans over issues such as boundaries, land ownership, and injuries and insults suffered by one clan at the hands of another. In the past, clan/tribal warfare was ritualized and fought with traditional weapons; the availability of firearms has made such conflicts deadlier.


Violence against women, including domestic violence and gang rape, is a serious and prevalent problem. Traditional village mores, which served as deterrents, are weakening and are largely absent when youths move from their village to a larger town or to the capital. Although rape is punishable by imprisonment, and sentences are imposed when assailants are found guilty, few assailants are apprehended. The willingness of some communities to settle incidents of rape through material compensation rather than criminal prosecutions makes the crime difficult to combat. Domestic violence, such as wife beating, also is common and is a crime. However, since most communities view domestic violence as a private matter, and few victims press charges, prosecutions are rare.

Violence committed against women by other women frequently stems from domestic disputes. In areas where polygyny is still customary, an increasing number of women have been charged with the murder of another of their husband's wives. According to one report, 65 percent of women in prison are there for attacking or killing another woman.

The Constitution and laws have provisions for extensive rights for women dealing with family, marriage, and property issues. Some women have achieved senior positions in business, the professions, and civil service. However, traditional patterns of discrimination against women persist. Many women, even in urban areas, are considered second-class citizens. Village courts tend to impose jail terms on women found guilty of adultery, while penalizing men lightly or not at all. Circuit­riding National Court justices frequently annulled such village court sentences. In 1996 the Government approved amendments to the Village Courts Act requiring that orders for imprisonment be endorsed by a district court before they take effect. Polygyny and the custom of paying a bride price tend to reinforce the view that women are property.

In addition to the purchase of women as brides, women also are sometimes given as compensation to settle disputes between clans. The courts have ruled that such settlements are a denial of the women's constitutional rights. During the year, the Jimi clan in the Western Highlands province included two 16-year-old girls as part of the compensation offered in the settlement of an interclan fight. The National Court has ordered a judicial inquiry.

According to statistics published in the U.N. Development Program's 1998 report on human development, women are gaining rapidly on men in literacy and education. Adult literacy has risen to 72 percent of the population. Sixty-three percent of women are literate, trailing men by 18 percent. There are 15 percent fewer girls in primary schools than boys. Maternal mortality levels remain relatively high at 930 deaths per 100,000 live births.

There is an Office of Women's Affairs in the Office of Church and Family Services of the Ministry of Provincial Affairs.


The Government did not dedicate significant resources to protect the rights and welfare of children. Most programs to protect and develop youth and children are operated by NGO's and religious organizations. Many government programs are underfunded. In the past, children have been well cared for within the family and under traditional clan and village controls. However, preliminary, small-scale studies indicate that this situation has changed over the last decade, especially in areas where households have become isolated from the extended family support system and depend on the cash economy for a livelihood. According to a report prepared by the Government and the U.N. Children's Fund, sexual abuse of children is believed to have become quite prevalent. Because of the geographic isolation and remoteness of many villages, malnutrition and infant mortality rates are very high. More than 60 of every thousand children born do not survive their first year. Although Papua New Guinea ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1993, the Government has not yet completed the report due in 1995 on CRC implementation, nor prepared the national plan of action.

People With Disabilities

Through the National Board for the Disabled, the Government funds to a number of NGO's that provide services to the disabled. The Government itself does not provide programs or services directly. Services and health care for the disabled, except for those provided by the traditional clan and family system, do not exist in several of the country's provinces. There is no legislation mandating accessibility for the disabled. Disabled persons face discrimination in education, training, and employment.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The right to form and join labor unions is provided by law, subject to registration by the Department of Industrial Relations. The Government does not use registration as a form of control over unions. However, an unregistered union has no legal standing with the Department of Labor or before the courts and thus cannot operate effectively. About half of the 250,000 wage earners in the formal economy are organized and are members of one of approximately 50 trade unions. Most of the unions representing private-sector workers are associated with the Trade Unions Congress. Unions are independent of the Government and of political parties.

Both public and private sector unions exercised their legal right to strike during the year.

Unions may freely affiliate with international organizations.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution provides for the right to engage in collective bargaining and to join industrial organizations. These rights are exercised freely. Under the law, the Government has discretionary power to cancel arbitration awards or declare wage agreements void when they are contrary to government policy. This law was criticized by the International Labor Organization in 1994. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers against union leaders, members, and organizers. The Department of Industrial Relations and the courts are involved in dispute settlement. Wages above the minimum wage are set through negotiations between employers and employees or their respective industrial organizations.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution forbids slavery and all forms of forced or compulsory labor, including that performed by children, and there were no reports of such practices. There were no reports of forced or bonded labor by children.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The Employment Act establishes the minimum working age as 18. However, children between the ages of 11 and 18 may be employed in a family-related business or enterprise provided they have parental permission, a medical clearance, and a work permit from a labor office. This type of employment is rare, except in subsistence agriculture. Forced and bonded labor by children is prohibited and is not known to occur (see Section 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Minimum wages for the private sector are set by the Minimum Wage Board, a quasi-governmental body with labor and employer representatives. The Board made a determination in 1992, which is still valid, reducing the minimum wage for newly hired urban workers to the level of the minimum wage for rural workers. Also in 1992, the National Youth Wage, for new entrants into the labor force between 16 and 21 years of age, was set at 75 percent of the adult minimum wage. The adult minimum wage of $9.87 (22.96 kina) per week does not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family who live solely on the cash economy. Although the Department of Labor and Employment and the courts attempt to enforce the minimum wage law, enforcement is not effective due to lack of resources. Minimum wage levels, allowances, rest periods, holidays leave, and overtime are regulated by law. The workweek is limited by law to 42 hours per week in urban areas and 44 hours per week in rural areas. The law provides for at least one rest period of 24 consecutive hours every week. Enforcement is lax.

Enforcement of the Industrial Health and Safety Law and related regulations is the responsibility of the Department of Labor and Employment. The law requires that work sites be inspected on a regular basis. However, due to a shortage of inspectors, inspections take place only when requested by workers or unions. Workers' ability to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions varies by workplace. Unionized workers have some measure of protection in such situations.

Search Refworld