Although a resource-rich country, almost 40 percent of Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) population lives in poverty. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted ongoing challenges with economic mismanagement and a severely under-resourced health care system. Weak implementation of laws on violence against women and children fosters a culture of impunity. In January, PNG’s parliament voted to repeal the death penalty, 30 years after it was reintroduced.
In August, James Marape was sworn in for a second term as prime minister following an election marred by violence, delays, and electoral irregularities, including the burning of ballot boxes by frustrated voters not on the common roll in East Sepik and Hela. The PNG government sent extra security personnel to the Highlands in response to tribal fighting during the election period, after armed men killed at least 18 people in an attack in Enga Province. Thousands of people fled the violence, which also caused damage to schools and hospitals. The United Nations condemned the escalation of violence, calling for an investigation and prosecution of perpetrators. Police investigated 15 candidates for election-related violence in Enga; at time of writing, the candidates were on the run. In September, the UN estimated that 89,000 people had been displaced by violence in Papua New Guinea’s Highlands since May.
Pressures on media freedom continued. In February, the head of news and current affairs at EMTV was suspended and later sacked, reportedly on the orders of a government minister, after the news team ran stories about an Australian businessman operating in PNG facing criminal charges.
Women’s and Girl’s Rights
PNG remains one of the most dangerous places to be a woman or girl. Over 1.5 million people experience gender-based violence each year. In April, a special parliamentary committee tabled its final report on measures to prevent violence against women and girls, recommending that PNG’s parliament establish a permanent committee on gender-based violence.
In February 2022, parliament passed legislation to strengthen criminal penalties for “sorcery”-related violence, which continues. In July, following the death of a prominent businessman, nine women in Enga Province were accused of “sorcery” by members of the businessman’s tribe and were splashed with petrol, burned, and assaulted vaginally with hot iron rods. Police rescued five of the women, but assailants killed four. Perpetrators of “sorcery”-related violence are rarely prosecuted. At time of writing, it appeared that no arrests had been made in the case, although the police commander said key suspects would be arrested soon.
PNG laws designed to protect women and children, including the Lukautim Pikinini (Child Welfare) Act 2015 and the Family Protection Act 2013, are rarely enforced. Initiatives such as Family Sexual and Violence Units within the police force remain limited. A dire lack of services for survivors of gender-based violence compounds the problem.
PNG has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. More than 2,000 women and girls die in childbirth in PNG each year; their deaths are largely preventable. The risk of maternal death is increased by limited access to hospitals, with more than 80 percent of the population living outside urban centers.
Two women won parliamentary seats in the national election, returning women to the PNG parliament for the first time in five years.
PNG has an underfunded health system. One in thirteen children die each year, mostly from preventable diseases.
Although school attendance rates for children have improved, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, estimates that a quarter of primary and secondary school-aged children do not attend school, especially girls. Just 15 percent of children have had their birth officially registered, with undocumented children more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
Police in PNG have a long record of violence with impunity, including against children. During the national election, police allegedly shot dead a 22-year-old woman holding her baby when they fired into the crowd at a polling booth in Port Moresby. Police said they were investigating the incident, but at time of writing it was unclear whether any investigation had commenced.
PNG police are severely understaffed, chronically underfunded, and often lack resources such as petrol, stationery, and vehicles. Police were ill-equipped to prevent outbreaks of violence during the national election.
Asylum Seekers and Refugees
At time of writing, less than 100 refugees and asylum seekers transferred there by the Australian government since 2013, remained in PNG. The Australian government withdrew from offshore processing in PNG at the end of 2022. New Zealand has agreed to work with UNHCR on referrals from PNG.
Refugees and asylum seekers in PNG continued to endure violence and harassment, with little protection from authorities. Medical facilities have proven unable to cope with the complex medical needs of asylum seekers, particularly their mental health needs.
Land and Environmental Rights
In February, the Bougainville government agreed with local landowners to reopen the Panguna copper and gold mine in the autonomous region of Bougainville. The mine closed in 1989 due to community anger at environmental damage and inequitable profits, leading to a decade-long conflict between the central government and rebels in Bougainville. The mine’s former operator, Rio Tinto, in 2021 agreed to fund an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine, following a 2020 complaint about the mine’s impact on communities’ health and environment.
While contributing very little to global emissions that are driving the climate crisis, coastal and island communities in PNG are facing serious climate impacts as sea-level rise and coastal erosion limit access to food and water, and force residents to relocate. Carterets Islanders, some of the world’s first communities displaced by the effects of climate change, are dependent on government food rations as rising sea levels and increased flooding destroy food crops.
In December 2021, parts of Papua New Guinea experienced a surge in king tides that flooded communities and displaced approximately 53,000 people. In May 2022, the International Organization for Migration delivered assistance in response to flooding induced by king tides in East Sepik, Manus, and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.
Deforestation and forest degradation drive a significant portion of the country’s emissions, though PNG committed to reducing emissions from these sources by 2030. According to Global Forest Watch, from 2020 to 2021, PNG lost around 88,000 thousand hectares of primary humid tropical forest. PNG has increased export of harvested timber in recent years, and struggles to regulate and manage logging companies.
In many cases, people with disabilities are unable to participate in community life or work because of lack of accessibility, stigma, and other barriers. Children with disabilities in PNG face abuse, discrimination, and a wide range of barriers to education. Access to mental health services and other support services are limited, and many people with psychosocial disabilities and their families often consider traditional healers to be their only option.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Same-sex relations are punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment under PNG’s criminal code. While there is little information on actual convictions, the law is sometimes used as a pretext by officials and employers to harass or extort money from gay and lesbian people in Papua New Guinea.
Right to Health
The fragile health system in PNG is underfunded and overwhelmed, with high rates of malaria and diabetes among its population of more than 8 million. PNG also has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world, with an estimated 30,000 new cases per year. Critical resources have been diverted from tuberculosis to respond to Covid-19.
Key International Actors
Both the Chinese and Australian governments are vying for influence in the Pacific. Australia is the largest provider of aid and investment to PNG. For 2022-23, Australia will provide an estimated AU$479 million (US$320 million) in bilateral funding to Papua New Guinea, and an estimated AU$596 million (US$399 million) in official development assistance.
Australia and PNG have strong security ties. In August, PNG’s Foreign Minister Justin Tkatchenko announced PNG is moving to negotiate a security treaty with Australia and potentially New Zealand. In 2022, Australia committed AU$580 million (US$396 million) to upgrade ports in PNG, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with PNG to rebuild the country’s air force.
The Chinese government also provides significant development and economic support to PNG. Beijing signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in March, but Beijing was unsuccessful in reaching a sweeping trade and security deal with 10 countries in the region, including PNG.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited PNG in June, prior to the national election. Days before the visit, the Chinese government released a position paper about its relations with Pacific countries that highlighted “mutual respect” and “common development” and focused on economic, technical, and social cooperation.
In March 2022, the Human Rights Council adopted the final outcome report on the Universal Periodic Review of PNG. In July, then-UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet wrote to PNG’s foreign minister welcoming PNG’s actions to repeal the death penalty and legislative steps to strengthen criminal penalties for sorcery-related violence, but expressed concern about the rights of women, girls, and LGBT people.