On July 8, gunmen in Papua New Guinea (PNG) killed at least 16 people during tribal fighting in Munima and Karia villages in the country’s Hela province. Reports indicate at least 8 women and 5 children were among the victims. Health workers told local media that “it was difficult to identify the bodies because they were all chopped to pieces.” PNG police said the massacre was in retaliation for the killing of six people in an ambush on July 6.
The killings occurred in the electorate of newly appointed Prime Minister James Marape.
In an emotional Facebook post, Marape threatened to “come after” the perpetrators with the death penalty. He expressed frustration at the inadequate police presence in the area and suggested that lack of resources were partly responsible: “How can a province of 400,000 people function with policing law and order with under 60 policemen?”
The PNG government reinstated the death penalty in 2013 and there currently are 16 people on death row. Of the 16, the national court sentenced 8 to death last year for their involvement in sorcery-related killings. Last week, Marape responded to questions about prisoners who have been on death row for over 10 years, saying that parliament will continue to debate whether the death penalty should remain in the criminal code. While there have been no known executions in PNG since 1954, Marape’s calls for the death penalty as punishment for the July 8 crimes is deeply concerning.
Tribal violence is common in Papua New Guinea and disproportionately affects women and children. Oxfam research from 2010 found that “insecurity and violence pervade all aspects of daily life in Hela, undermining all types of development in the region.” Hela is a province rich in gas reserves, which has led to tensions over the distribution of revenues.
These attacks are abhorrent, but the death penalty is not the answer. The United Nations General Assembly has continually called on countries to establish a moratorium on the death penalty with a view toward its eventual abolition. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an irreversible, degrading, and cruel punishment.
The Marape government should focus on conducting a thorough and impartial investigation and prosecuting those responsible. Ensuring a robust legal system in which suspects receive a fair trial is the best way to bring justice to the victims.