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Papua New Guinea

Events of 2023

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) speaks during a meeting with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape (left) at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Week in San Francisco, California, on November 16, 2023.

© 2023 Frederic J. BROWN / AFP

Although a resource-rich country, the World Bank estimates that almost 40 percent of the population of Papua New Guinea (PNG) lives in poverty, with only 20.9 percent having access to electricity. Most people in PNG live without consistent access to clean water. James Marape is now into his second term as prime minister, and despite promising to address rampant corruption and discrimination against women, PNG’s human rights record has not improved.

Violence that started during the 2022 general elections persisted in the Highland regions in 2023. Since the elections, conflict over resources in other regions has resulted in more than 400 deaths and displaced over 20,000 people. The increase in violence in recent years has been attributed to the widespread trade of guns and other weapons as well as the weak rule of law in the country. Gunmen are available for hire to carry out violent, lethal attacks. In August, a video went viral showing the naked corpses of three mercenaries being dragged behind a truck as people cheered.

On September 27, the National Parliament of PNG took a positive step forward in addressing gender-based violence at work by ratifying the International Labour Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention (C190), which requires comprehensive protections to end violence and harassment, including gender-based violence, at work.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

PNG remains a dangerous place to be a woman or girl. Over 1.5 million people experience gender-based violence each year. PNG laws designed to protect women and children, including the Family Protection Act 2013 and the Lukautim Pikinini (Child Welfare) Act 2015, are rarely enforced. Initiatives such as Family Sexual and Violence Units within the police force remain limited in number and capacity, a problem compounded by a dire lack of services in communities for gender-based violence survivors.

Violence and lawlessness have exacerbated pervasive sexual and gender-based violence in PNG. In June, in the village of Walagu in Hela Province, women and girls as young as 12 were kidnapped and sexually assaulted en masse by a gang thought to be retaliating for the police’s response to another kidnapping in February. Addressing these abuses is complicated by the geography of the highlands and limited phone reception, and at time of writing, no arrests had been made.

PNG has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the region. The risk of maternal death is increased by limited access to hospitals, with over 80 percent of the population living outside of urban centers. Current data reported by health centers indicates that 171 out of every 100,000 women die giving birth, but the number could be up to three times higher. The government has failed to take effective action to end child marriage; 27 percent of girls and 4 percent of boys are married before age 18.

In May, it was discovered that the Department for Community Development and Religion had used 2.5 million Kina (about US$678,000) earmarked for measures to combat gender-based violence for travel and other miscellaneous expenses.

Also in May, the Parliamentary Committee on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) heard testimonies from civil society groups and discussed efforts to combat gender-based violence and violence based on accusations of sorcery, though it remains to be seen whether its findings will have any effect on the status of women and girls in the country.

Police Abuse and Corruption 

PNG police are severely understaffed, chronically underfunded, and often lack resources such as petrol, stationery, and vehicles. There is about 1 police officer per 1,845 people, which is far lower than the ratio of 1 officer to every 450 people that the United Nations recommends.

In August, police in Enga Province were authorized to use lethal force to quell violence that killed up to 70 people in July and August. This raised concerns that the unit that had been mobilized on “shoot-to-kill” orders would aggravate the situation, especially given the PNG police’s long record of violence with impunity.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity 

Male 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 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in PNG.

In June, Prime Minister Marape confirmed that his administration does not intend to repeal the laws criminalizing male homosexuality, maintaining that PNG’s current legal framework is enough to protect the rights of its citizens. The same month, the United States embassy flew a pride flag, prompting outrage from the general public. In response, Marape sent a letter to the embassy reminding it of what he called PNG’s values surrounding homosexuality as a majority Christian country.

Children’s Rights to Health and Education

PNG has an underfunded health system, and 1 in 13 children die each year, mostly from preventable diseases. Rural children are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday compared to their urban counterparts.

In 2020 (the latest year for which data is available), the completion rate was only 59 percent for primary education and 30 percent for lower secondary. One-third of the schools in Porgera, Enga Province, remain closed due to the violence persisting in the region since the 2022 elections.

Freedom of Speech

In February, PNG’s Department of Information and Communications Technology released a draft of a new National Media Development Policy that could threaten press freedom if passed. There are concerns about the draft law’s inclusion of a clause that would allow the government to punish journalists and media organizations that create content that is against the country’s development objectives, which have been exacerbated by Prime Minister Marape’s ongoing criticism of the press since his re-election last year.

Disability Rights

People with disabilities are often 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. Although PNG has developed a national disability policy, the government has yet to pass comprehensive disability legislation.

Asylum Seekers and Refugees 

While the Australian government formally withdrew from offshore processing in PNG, over 75 people remain in Port Moresby, waiting to be resettled. In July, parliamentary documents revealed that Australia agreed to pay PNG to provide welfare to the refugees. The Australian government has refused to disclose the terms of the agreement, including how much money it is paying PNG.

Refugees and asylum seekers in PNG 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.

Key International Actors 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited PNG in May to sign two cooperation agreements that would allow the US to deploy troops to PNG in an emergency and board PNG ships to help patrol the waters for trafficking and unregulated fishing activities. The same month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also visited PNG for the third Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation. Following the first Korea-Pacific Islands Summit at the end of May, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol agreed to expand cooperation with 17 Pacific countries, including PNG.

PNG is Australia’s closest neighbor and biggest aid recipient. In the 2024 fiscal year, it will receive 500 million Australian dollars (or approximately US$323 million) from Australia. At time of writing, PNG and Australia were still negotiating the terms of their defense agreement.

In September, PNG became the fifth country to open an embassy to Israel in West Jerusalem.