(Geneva) – The Papua New Guinea (PNG) government should present its plan and timeline for closing the Manus Island detention center at the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Papua New Guinea on May 6, 2016, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch welcomed PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s announcement on April 27, 2016, to close the Australian-funded Manus Island detention center, which houses refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.

Asylum seeker detention center at Lombrum naval base, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.  © 2015 Private

PNG should also make concrete commitments to address other serious human rights issues highlighted in Human Rights Watch’s submission to the UPR, including police abuses, violations of women’s and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, the death penalty, extractive industries, and disability rights.

The Universal Periodic Review is a chance for the world to see whether Papua New Guinea has followed through on promises it made in 2011 to end and remedy human rights abuses.
Elaine Pearson

Australia director

At the UPR, countries under review submit written reports on their human rights situation and respond to the questions, recommendations, and concerns raised by member countries of the Human Rights Council. PNG’s last review was in 2011. At that time, a wide range of concerns about human rights abuses were raised, and the government responded by pledging a broad set of reforms. In spite of these commitments, there has been little reform in several areas.

“The Universal Periodic Review is a chance for the world to see whether Papua New Guinea has followed through on promises it made in 2011 to end and remedy human rights abuses,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “PNG still has a lot of work to do – especially in addressing long-standing problems like family violence, abuses by police, and abuses against refugees and asylum seekers detained on Manus Island.”

On April 27, 2016, O’Neill requested the Australian government find alternative arrangements for its detainees and those refugees who do not wish to voluntarily stay in PNG. This followed a ruling on April 26 by PNG’s Supreme Court that the detention of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island violates the country’s constitution.

The court stated, “Both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation centre on Manus Island and the continued breach of the asylum seekers or transferees constitutional and human rights.”

Human Rights Watch said at the UPR process, countries should ask PNG officials to elaborate on immediate plans to implement the Supreme Court decision.

“To comply with its own court ruling, PNG should take steps immediately to close the Manus detention center once and for all,” said Pearson. “PNG should make arrangements to send asylum seekers and refugees to Australia or third countries with capacity to settle refugees safely and with dignity.”

In April 2016, the PNG government claimed to have completed all refugee assessments, however some of those “failed” applicants never submitted asylum applications, and an appeals process is yet to be completed. More than 850 so-called “failed” asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island are currently detained in poor and overcrowded conditions. About half of this number have been granted refugee status but refuse to leave because of concerns over safety and an inability to provide for themselves in PNG. About 60 refugees remain in a transit center on Manus Island, but only about seven refugees have been permitted to leave Manus Island to obtain employment elsewhere in PNG. Three of these men have returned to Manus due to problems at their workplace or living quarters. Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees on Manus continue to face pressure to return to their country of origin.

Despite PNG’s commitments in 2011 to address police abuses, these remain rampant with more than 1,600 complaints of police abuse filed between 2007 and 2014. Of particular concern is the use of excessive force by police during arrest, interrogation, and pretrial detention, sometimes resulting in death. Police who engage in abuses often enjoy impunity, due to a lack of disciplinary action, suspension, or prosecutions.

In 2013, the PNG government took the important step of passing a new law, the Family Protection Act, which provides new penalties for domestic violence and new services for victims. But three years later, the law has not been implemented. Survivors of domestic violence face significant barriers in obtaining protection orders and there is a dire lack of services such as safe houses, qualified counsellors, and legal aid, for those requiring assistance.

Abortion remains illegal in PNG and in October 2015, the first conviction under the 1975 abortion law occurred when a couple were found guilty of killing their unborn child and sentenced to five years in prison each.

“Over the last four years, we’ve seen no practical improvement in justice for violence against women,” Pearson said. “Countries need to press PNG to decriminalize abortion and implement the Family Protection Act without delay.”