What to do with our violent neighbour?

Normal, Weekender

CYNTHIA BANHAM paints a grim picture of everyday life in Papua New Guinea

FOR a country separated from ours by a few kilometres of ocean, Papua New Guinea’s horrific and incessant human rights violations rarely enter public consciousness.
Police brutality occurs with impunity. They torture those in custody, rape women who seek their help, and carry out summary executions, including of children. Children are locked up with adults in police detention where they are physically and sexually abused by inmates. Residents of settlements are left homeless, their possessions stolen, when police torch their homes as collective punishment for others’ crimes.
Much of this has been documented in recent reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Violence has reached abhorrent levels, and not just at the hands of police. There’s a high incidence of domestic violence, and in some parts of the disparate and culturally complex country, tribal warfare as well. The regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights based in Suva, Matilda Bogner, told me: “It does seem that life in PNG is generally getting more violent and this, somehow, is becoming more acceptable.”
Bogner described the increasing numbers of sorcery-related killings. These are murders of people, often vulnerable old women who might own a garden coveted by neighbours, accused of being witches. “In the Highlands, it’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue and the type of violence that happens to the victims is awful: they torture them with hot iron rods and stick them into their bodies and do all sorts of really horrific things before usually killing them.”
The Government doesn’t keep reliable statistics, and close observers of PNG are reluctant to say levels of violence are rising. Two relevant studies were carried out in the early 1990s which are still heavily relied on in the absence of anything more recent. They contain such alarming figures as 67 per cent of women nationwide and 100 per cent of Highlands women being beaten by their husbands with 60 per cent of men participating in gang rape at least once. A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade official says: “We’ve not seen conclusive evidence that the problem is getting worse, but that is not saying much because the problem is bad.”
Some obvious questions follow.
The first is why is violence, and tolerance of violence, so endemic? Another, more difficult to answer, is if Australia has a responsibility to help its close former dependency tackle its poor human rights record, what is that responsibility, and why have past attempts failed?
Reasons for the violence range from the historical – violence was seen as a legitimate way of dealing with neighbourly disputes – to the contemporary. Globalisation and urbanisation breaking down traditional structures and ties; weak governance and poor infrastructure and services; a population explosion combined with high unemployment resulting in a high crime rate Ö the list goes on.
Factors contributing to policing problems are numerous: poor resourcing, low morale, too few officers, law and order being a low political priority; and the clashing of traditional and modern values. Those who try to help PNG (such as Australia, which will spend $414 million on aid this financial year) can find themselves in a bind. Values we take for granted – like rejecting police brutality and corruption – are not necessarily respected on the other side of Torres Strait. They can clash with traditional values, where obligations to one’s family and kin can outweigh those to the state.
Sinclair Dinnen, from the Australian National University’s State Society and Governance in Melanesia centre, says: “If we simply look at PNG as a dysfunctional version of ourselves, we would be completely mistaken. PNG is not Australia.”
The Australian Federal Police learnt some of these lessons the hard way after the collapse of the Enhanced Co-operation Program in 2005. Resentments by PNG police towards their Australian counterparts over issues like assigning younger AFP officers to advise older local officers – something considered offensive – grew, and eventually a high court decision found immunities granted to Australian police were unconstitutional, so they came home.
The AFP is preparing to return in the next financial year. They will do things differently this time, having spent months consulting their local partners about what their role will be, and how they will operate (something, amazingly, they didn’t do last time).
Cultural sensitivity is one thing. Bogner believes Australia isn’t doing enough to drive home the message that when it comes to upholding human rights, some things are non-negotiable.
“Australia is very cautious on the human rights front, they won’t squarely say this is a problem and unless you fix it we are not going to support you,” she says. Maybe Australia should take a harder line, but standing by and doing nothing while PNG degenerates is surely not an option.


* Cynthia Banham is the Sydney Morning Heraldís diplomatic correspondent. This article appeared in the Herald on Sept 18.