AusAID and Papua New Guinea: Urgent need for a policy review

Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is expected to make a five-day visit to PNG beginning on 3 March 2008 - the first of any State visit by an Australian Prime Minister in many years. PM Rudd will be briefed by his diplomatic and development representatives on the poor security situation, as well as high levels of criminality and societal violence in PNG.  AusAID will rightly argue that this ‘law and order’ problem is a serious drag on PNG’s development and the prospects for AusAID development assistance.

AusAID will outline to PM Rudd Australian support to the PNG police who are charged with addressing these violent crimes. But it is unlikely that there will be neither discussion of the appalling human rights situation nor the direct involvement of the police in these crimes.

Beyond a limited ‘law and order’ prism, Rudd’s representatives are equally unlikely to offer any analysis on the relationship between human rights violations by police and poor security and the consequent prospects for development. This is a troubling position: even senior members of the PNG government concede that the PNG Police are a cause of insecurity, violence and contributing to the breakdown in the rule of law in PNG.

While the links between human rights, security and development might have been unclear and hence understandable twenty years ago, this is no longer the case. These links have been an established part of mainstream development policy making for more than a decade, included in the policies of such development actors as DfID, the EU and the World Bank. 

AusAID under the Howard government has fallen out of touch with the rest of the development community. AusAID influence in PNG is difficult to underestimate. It will spend an estimated 355 million Australian dollars in PNG in 2008 alone. The size of its assistance allows AusAID to dominate development discourse in PNG.

In this review ACHR argues that AusAIDs policy position condemns Australian development assistance to failure. Billions of dollars of Australian development assistance will be wasted and will at best fail to halt PNG’s descent into a vicious cycle of violence and human rights violations that undermine all other aspects of development and development assistance.

With a new government in Australia there is an urgent need for a policy review to address a development department badly adrift.

 Criminality in PNG  

There is no doubt that criminality and in particular violent crime, is a serious problem in PNG. Despite low levels of reporting, available evidence suggests crime is getting worse. A recent survey suggested that 18% of the Port Moresby population survive on crime [1] . Organised crime is a particular problem. Organised gangs have high levels of integration with poor communities where they perform a redistributive function. [2]  

Crime in PNG is complex. Dinnen notes that ‘rampant corruption among the political elite has also fuelled the rise of raskolism [vernacular for criminal gangs], providing a powerful rationalization for street criminals’ [3] There are well established links between organized crime and the political elite.  In 1997 Australian Television screened concealed video footage of the then PNG Prime Minister William Skate claiming that he was the ‘the Godfather’ of all PNG’s criminal gangs.   

There are similar links between criminal gangs, the police and powerful business interests. These links were highlighted by a 2006 report by CELCOR, a public interest environmental law NGO based in Port Moresby .  The group documented acts of arbitrary detention and physical brutality by security guards, often police against landowners.  Many of the violations were perpetrated by members of the police ‘moonlighting’ for logging companies. The documented atrocities include the beating up of villagers taking legal action, incarceration without charge, the torching of homes and crops, the shooting of domestic animals with M16s, and men forced at gun point to commit homosexual acts with each other.  

Any analysis of the rule of law and in particular police reform must take account of elite linkages to organized crime.

Police Reform and Violence in PNG  

Since independence in 1975 AusAID has played a central role in police reform in PNG. While millions of Australian tax dollars have been spent on attempts at reform, the police are not only failing to address crime, they are actually perpetuating a downward cycle of crime and violence.  One aspect of the failure is explained by chronic under-resourcing in all areas of policing – barracks are regularly condemned as unfit for human habitation. The police are regularly placed in security situations where they are literally outmanned and out gunned.  The challenge of policing in PNG is enormous: from the extreme nature of the crimes, to PNGs harsh geography.  Not surprisingly, against this background, morale is very poor. [4]  

The Human Rights Situation in PNG  

Poor resources present an incomplete picture. There are only a few major studies on the human rights situation in PNG, primarily carried out by the international human rights group Human Rights Watch. Their conclusions are of widespread and systematic patterns of abuse perpetrated by the police. Their reports express particular concern for violations against children, including torture and rape. The police are guilty of: ‘wanton crime and abuse’ and ‘routinely employ excessive force, sexual violence and torture against individuals in their custody’. [5] There are all too familiar reports in the media of detainees being shot ‘while resisting arrest’, or ‘while trying to escape’.  

While some level of violation is unremarkable for any security force – mistakes happen - it is the scale of these violations and the extent of the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators that is of deep concern. Violations in PNG have reached such widespread and systematic levels they are actually feeding crime, insecurity and a breakdown in the rule of law.  

The Government of PNG concurs. In the words of Governor-General, Sir Paulias Matane ‘the constabulary, instead of protecting and serving the community was being seen more as a threat to our very security’ [6].  A 2004 PNG Ministerial Police Review noted as key issues: ‘rape and assault’ as well as ‘excessive and unprovoked violence’ [7]. The report concludes that:  ‘law and order is breaking down and there are serious discipline and morale problems within the Royal PNG Police Constabulary’ [8].  

Over the years AusAID driven reform of the police and justice sectors has taken many forms, but the basic structural issue remains unchallenged: impunity for grave violations of human rights. The 2004 Ministerial Police Review and Human Rights Watch both identify the lack of accountability as a key obstacle to changing the culture and reforming the police force. The 2004 Ministerial Police Review stated that the Government would not ‘tolerate continuance of the present appalling state of affairs’. [9]  In relation to the prospects for reform it warned that ‘without government commitment, nothing will change’ [10]. The report is now three years old and impunity continues to undermine reform efforts.  

The report is now three years old and impunity continues to undermine reform efforts. Few if any other national police forces have ever been so reliant on support from a single external donor, not least the former colonial power, who established the PNG police force. And it is in this context that Australia must take a measure of responsibility for the failure to address impunity for police human rights as a central tenet reform.  

Australian Assistance  

Despite the severity of human rights abuses in PNG, under the Howard government, Australian diplomatic representatives did not publicly raise human rights concerns with PNG. Senior diplomats privately concede that this omission was replicated in private exchanges. AusAID publications on PNG suggest that they do not consider human rights an issue.  For example, the AusAID Papua New Guinea - Australia Development Cooperation Strategy 2006-2010 fails to mention the words ‘human rights’.  

One explanation for the absent human rights analysis may perhaps be found in an examination of Australia ’s unique development relationship with PNG. Since independence from Australia in 1975, PNG development assistance remains dominated by Australia . AusAID enjoys a quasi monopolistic position as donor in PNG – a country with a high degree of dependence on external assistance [11]. The theory of monopoly behaviour suggests PM Rudd should be concerned: as with all monopolies, even with the best will in the world, monopolists tend to engage in behavior that abuses their market position.  

AusAID dominates development discourse in PNG. Other donors lack the funds to take the sectoral approach that AusAID can afford and append their projects to an AusAID design.  

Another indicator is the parlous state of PNG civil society. Even in countries without democracy, and with weak rule of law, under normal circumstances civil society plays a key role in advocating for human rights. NGOs are engines of ideas which can provide alternative visions for us to contest, refine, accept or reject. In such developing countries domestic financial support for human rights groups (whose role is to challenge government on the most sensitive issues) is not realistic. The human rights sector of civil society in most developing countries is heavily reliant on external funding.  In PNG AusAID's monopolistic role means that civil society is limited by AusAIDs funding approach to development. It is hardly surprising then that while there are valiant attempts to defend human rights, there is no identifiable human rights movement in PNG.  

The situation is compounded by legal protections against criticism of AusAID established by the Howard Administration.  Under Howard, AusAID reserved the right to censor the public statements of NGOs in contracts for delivery of government-funded welfare services. The confidentiality clauses required not for profit organisations to provide copies of their media releases, submissions, reports and campaigns to the Government before being issued publicly.  These restrictive clauses also gave the Federal Government the right to insist that the organisation change staff members. These conditions which may have been intended to prevent political criticism, stifled public debate and prevented the release of vital research on social issues, not least human rights. Thankfully one of PM Rudd’s government first initiatives has been to put an end to these clauses - a move that Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) applauds.  


As the only recently departed ex-colonial power and its continuing dominance, Australia bears a high level of responsibility for PNGs failing rule of law. Diplomatic silence has compounded the issue and allowed impunity to go unchallenged. It has provided political support to a police ‘reform’ processes which result in more rather than less insecurity; reform processes that however innovative or well intentioned have always ducked the key issue impunity, in favour of simplistic law and order analyses.  

Perversely for a democratic country, human rights are not on the political agenda of the PNG government, the political parties, civil society, or the media. With Australian support successive PNG governments have responded to very high levels of crime and violent social disorder with a blunt focus on punitive actions in the justice sector.  Their response has been neither strategic nor long term. They inevitably fail. What little space remains for alternatives is increasingly sidelined by ever more emotive calls for punitive action to respond to PNGs appalling problem with violence; punitive action in which the criminals are rarely punished if ever caught.  

Rudd Government Performance

With regard to Australia the Rudd Administration is moving in the right direction. On 9 January Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the end to ‘gag’ clauses. Gillard argued that: "Effectively, the Howard Government moved to close down debate". ACHR agrees. But ACHR would ask PM Rudd to consider the impact on debate in a country that lacks Australia’s more robust democratic culture, where there is little democratic space and where civil society advocacy action is limited to funding by AusAID – an institution with an organizational culture resistant  to criticism. 

On 13 February 2008 the government apologized for the ‘stolen generation’ – Aboriginal children stolen from their families in the 1970s. Prime Minister Rudd was brave enough to admit that the old policies had failed. He promised a new beginning.  

A similar break with the past is needed to Australia ’s assistance to PNG. Respect for human rights and the rule of law is in Australia ’s interest. Unless Australia can assist PNG to shore up the rule of law Australians will continue to have to spend millions of tax payers dollars on support for policing that contributes to an increasingly ungovernable and lawless state.  

Whether or not PM Rudd accepts human rights arguments, Australian tax payers will contribute an estimated AU$355 million to PNG in 2008. Objectively the policy has failed. AusAID has a case to answer.  

The Asian Centre for Human Rights urges the Australian government to:  

[1] Dinnen, S Building Bridges : Law and Justice Reform in Papua New Guinea . State Society and Governance in Melanesia . School of Pacific and Asian Studies. Australian National University 2005.

[2] Dinnen, S Building Bridges : Law and Justice Reform in Papua New Guinea . State Society and Governance in Melanesia . School of Pacific and Asian Studies. Australian National University 2005.

[3] Dinnen, S Building Bridges : Law and Justice Reform in Papua New Guinea . State Society and Governance in Melanesia . School of Pacific and Asian Studies. Australian National University 2005.

[4] Report of the Royal PNG Constabulary Administrative Review Committee to Minister for Internal Security Bire Kimasopa. September 2004

[5] . Human Rights Watch Report

[6] . The National Newspaper 4 March 2007

[7] . Report of the Royal PNG Constabulary Administrative Review Committee to Minister for Internal Security Bire Kimasopa. September 2004

[8] . ibid

[9] . ibid

[10] . ibid

[11] There are other donors but the size of Australian assistance means the agenda is set by AusAID.

| Home | About Us | Briefing Papers | Review | Reports | Press Releases | Info by Country |
| ACHR in Media | Info by Theme | Urgent Actions | ACHR Impact | Campaigns | Contact Us |
© Copy right 2007 Asian Centre for Human Rights