Law and Order in Papua New Guinea

At the heart of the phrase ‘law and order’ is a concept of ‘civic security’ — that is, the safety and liberty of citizens in a modern nation-state. As the preamble of the PNG constitution proclaims, all citizens are entitled to ‘life, liberty, security of person and the protection of the law…’. In principle, civic security remains first and foremost a responsibility of the state and its various agencies of law and justice. The police are accorded a central role in the deterrence and detection of crimes or, as the constitution puts it, in the preservation of ‘peace and good order’.

Yet the reality for most PNG citizens is very different. Formal law and justice resources are concentrated in the urban centres and suffer from a chronic lack of capacity. For nearly everyone, and especially the rural majority, challenges of personal security are more likely to be mediated through an individual’s membership of an extended family, sub-clan or other local association rather than through citizenship in the state.

In this article, we use the term ‘law and order’ broadly to implicate the full range of conditions and factors that affect, or are seen to affect, civic security, including:

  • criminal acts and violence (particularly sexual violence);
  • state law (as provided in written laws and judicial precedents);
  • the ‘arms of the law’—that is, the institutional enforcers and interpreters of state law, notably the police and other uniformed services, courts and prisons;
  • myriad methods of informal community-based social regulation, including customary law and community norms whose authority is not derived primarily from the state, and that prevail at local levels throughout PNG.

Papua New Guinea’s ‘law and order’ difficulties were noted before Independence in 1975. Since then they have grown. Alphonse Gelu voices a number of common, current perceptions: that rising rates of crime and violence in both urban and rural settings threaten the democratic process, prey on lawful business, cause health and other services in parts of the country to shut down, subject women and girls to sickening abuse, and defy church and government countermeasures. These anxieties are amply aired in the local press. Recent national surveys attest to widespread concerns about personal safety, crime, corruption and violence while a signficant proportion of informants have also been victims. Women more often report and fear intimate and sexual violence, but men are prone to other forms of assault. At a recent symposium on ‘Culture and Violence’ in Madang, Powes Parkop, governor of the National Capital District, complained that violence ‘is like a cancer destroying our nation and retarding our social and economic progress’. Port Moresby is repeatedly classed as one of the world’s unsafest cities (though recent data suggest that it is not the worst in PNG) and, like Parkop, many outside commentators identify PNG’s law and order problems as major impediments to development.

Discussing ‘violence’, ‘corruption’ and ‘lawlessness’ in PNG, whether from inside or outside, is beset by difficulties, dangers and distortion, to which the introduction and several chapters allude. But these pitfalls do not alter the fact that PNG indeed faces great challenges in the governance of security. ‘Governance’ can be taken to mean the organisations and norms, state and non-state, that collectively regulate social life, and, if the metaphor is not taken too far, it can be helpful to think of governance in PNG by analogy with an hourglass.

The top half of the hourglass is the state. PNG’s state is less than 40 years old. It was built on the spare skeleton of a colonial administration largely—but rapidly and minimally—fashioned after World War II. Many people in PNG today are little touched by the state; they live beyond its geographic reach. Where the state does operate, dysfunction is common. While PNG has the usual panoply of state law and state agencies, many ideals and attributes associated with the Western-cum-liberal state in countries with longer traditions of statehood (by which criteria, of course, many older states also fall short), do not altogether apply. These include the state’s spatial permeation of the nation; state capacity to fulfill crucial responsibilities, such as the rule of law; impersonal bureaucratic principles; and the depersonalised exercise of power. (The rich literature on the concept of the Melanesian ‘big man’, though debated, attests to the vitality and operation, at every political level in PNG, of a contrasting ideal of personalised power). The constitution, state laws, the bulk of law and justice agencies and the military are to be found in this half of the hourglass.

The bottom half of is ‘community’—a tricky word that in PNG as elsewhere can refer to a variety of flexible social configurations. For this article, it applies to people who recognise ‘ties that bind’ through relations of reciprocity, often embodied and symbolised in common language (wantoks), kinship and cultural observations; joint interests in a physical locality; and a sense, in certain contexts, of common interests in survival. While these interests and relations can accommodate much change, diversity, ‘insider’ manipulation and fission, they can also provide prompts and platforms for people’s cooperation—for their coming together to sort things out—and, as PNG’s Social Welfare and Development Minister Dame Carol Kidu and others argue, constitute PNG’s major social resource. The vast majority of everyday disputes, within and between communities, tends to be managed informally through community-based mechanisms.

The narrow waist of the hourglass is the conduit and intermediate zone between the two. For the governance of security, two state institutions are crucial here: police and village courts. The national force of some 5,000 police can be imagined as an arm of state law that reaches down to community. The village court system, currently comprising around 14,000 courts that serve over 90 percent of PNG’s villages, was introduced by Australian colonial administration in 1973 but designed in part as an extension of community governance that could reach up and interlock with the national court system and bridge different legal and social worlds. The village court system and police are stressed. Similar observations could be made for crucial state institutions at this interface in other areas, such as health (aidposts) and education (schools).

Civil society affiliations can also serve as bridging tissue. In PNG, vertical civil society linkages, as well as those that horizontally knit people from different primary communities of place and kin—through for instance common pastimes, causes, professions, or educational experience—are increasing, but still relatively scarce. An important exception is the churches that, in the language of social capital, often have intensive and extensive, horizontal and vertical networks. Heterogeneous though the churches are, their presence and influence are pervasive. Secular NGOs operating in the intermediate zone include organisations that have abilities to engage with government policy and project a public profile, but many draw their greatest strength from international networks while their roots in communities at large are relatively weak.

Business can act as a state-and-community ‘go between’ too. The formal business sector in PNG, however, employs only a tiny proportion of the working population (according to 2000 census figures, 10.4 percent), and tends to be dominated by very large companies. These can be admirable corporate citizens, engage in dialogue with the state, feature in national media, do important work with their employees and the communities where they operate, and sometimes they constitute ‘mini states within the state’ by providing services in education, health and security to ‘their people’. But again, the bulk of Papua New Guineans remain outside such constituencies.

This metaphor of ‘hourglass governance’ thus points to the narrowness of the conduit that both joins and separates state and community. It can also be useful to think about the pressures on this slender waist. From the top comes the requirement to observe the principles of law, the values they enshrine, assumptions of how state and citizenry should behave, and operational dictates. From below comes the imperative to meet the expectations and values of local communities, or what Michael Goddard terms ‘local sociality’ that may variously draw upon ancestral traditions, Christianity and other sources. From many angles, but probably most powerfully from the side, come the demands of a global discourse on rights, often most vigorously promoted by NGOs, international organisations, and development partners. Global rights discourse harmonises most readily with the underlying Western-cum-liberal morality of the state, but can make common ground with Christian teachings and also with elements of local socialities. Yet in many parts of the world, PNG not excepted, the promotion of rights is often heard as an exogenous Western discourse of criticism.

Violence is an attribute of many issues, and deserves reflection within this sketch, beginning with some general reflections on violence in the modern state according to Western, liberal ideals. In Weberian theory, the state has a monopoly on the exercise of legitimate violence. Theoretically, it is also ultimately responsible for dealing with illegitimate violence in its midst (though, in practice, some forms of violence, such as domestic violence, have been, and continue to be, largely left alone). Only minimal levels of state-sponsored violence necessary should, ideally, be used (though, again, instances of excessive state-sponsored violence occur and proponents of punitive state violence continue to be vigorous). And lastly, while deterrence has always been part of the state’s responsibility to ‘ensure peace and good order’—and is an ancient justification for its use and exploitation of violence—that responsibility has been subjected to more recent reassessment and reemphasis. Forms of state violence, such as public hanging, have been argued to be both immoral and demonstrably ineffective as deterrents, while conventional state responses to violence and crime are said to often reproduce the problem—for example, when a convicted young man reemerges from prison more hardened and violent than before. As a corollary to these arguments, the moral value and economic benefits of deterrence have been emphasised. Consequently, interest in the state’s promotion of nonviolent forms of prevention has grown, both in theory and practice.

For the young, postcolonial state in PNG, these broad statements are qualified somewhat by consideration of state capacity, resources, and community attitudes—attitudes that state officers may share with the wider community and which also shape their working environment. In PNG, even if opportunity avails, some forms of domestic violence and sexual assault are even less likely to be reported to or pursued by police than they are in many Western countries. Other forms of violence, such as ‘community sanctioned’ assaults, killings, or intergroup fighting may not be investigated properly because police believe that the violence was warranted or they lack the means. Some crimes are kept from police and the formal justice system by parties who prefer to exact and pay compensation, or because benefits—such as stolen goods—are distributed. And the vast majority of violent acts that are illegitimate according to law simply occur far from the eyes, ears and arms of the state. In PNG, the arguments for the involvement of police in the prevention of violence before the fact therefore have particular force, if only because so little is or can be done after.

Police also reportedly use violence and, on occasion, exploit its spectacle. The rough treatment of suspects, raids on settlements or the torching of villages are examples. Such police violence may be justified as retribution, deterrence, the best option for action with limited resources, or a fair response to the perceived failure of courts to deliver justice. Some police may also commit acts of violence primarily as a perquisite and expression of masculinity. For the same reasons that many legal responses to violence and crime by police and other law and justice agencies can be criticised for reproducing the problems they are supposed to limit, policing practices such as these, while in themselves illegal, also add to the sum of violence.

In societies everywhere violence has accepted roles, and traditional cultures of PNG are no exception. For instance, warfare was a means for securing group resources (and a mechanism for the redistribution of land). The term ‘payback’ also implies an acceptably violent retaliation for a wrong. Witchcraft and sorcery have been understood as an effective means of oblique violence; and untimely death and other personal misfortunes continue to be commonly attributed to such practices. Overt violence could be used to punish wrongdoers for an offence or to remove individuals deemed to pose a threat to the group. In many (but by no means all) parts of PNG, forms of gender or intimate violence have been considered justified in certain circumstances. While much has been written about traditional precedents for man-to-woman violence and its role in structuring masculine dominance, woman-to-man and, more often, woman-to-woman violence could also as be seen as sometimes justified.

The traditional exercise of violence may have been costly in human life, but appears to have been regulated. It must also be seen alongside complementary tendencies to form relationships of reciprocity between groups and individuals, and to respond to wrongs through non-violent compensation and reintegration. As Richard Sikani has written, the restorative impulse is strong in many PNG traditions. This tends to be reinforced by indigenised Christianity and was a feature, for instance, in grassroots reconciliation in the Bougainville peace process. In some cases, however, the payment of compensation and reintegration of an offender can be interpreted as violating principles of Western justice, women’s rights or the interests of the victim, and failing to repudiate the crime. In other circumstances, cycles of retribution are difficult to stop.

Various factors currently favour violence, while weakening traditional and modern checks. Laments are often heard that elders have lost authority while young men have lost their way. The retreat of police and other government services from some areas has left a space where traditional responses, for instance, to persons accused of witchcraft, have assumed new, more violent forms. Links between male violence and, since the 1960s, alcohol consumption or, more recently, marijuana are keenly perceived. Guns have changed the rules of violent engagement and, with deteriorating medical services, made it more deadly. Social change has eroded many customs that regulated contact between the sexes and which, in some communities, both authorised but checked violence against women. Crowding, due to population growth or immigration, has accentuated tensions over resources in various urban and rural locales. The need for money can dispose a victim’s kin to seek financial compensation rather than challenge the wrong itself, while poverty can encourage crime and opportunistic sexual relations (often leading to domestic and other violence) for material gain. Trafficking in girls, guns, and marijuana has emerged, and the use of girls as currency. Indeed, certain forms of crime and conflict appear to follow (as do directions for the spread of HIV) broader development processes—hence the concentration of organised crime in expanding urban centres, armed hold-ups along arterial highways, and inter-group conflict near major resource development. Critics of PNG’s huge liquid natural gas project, at AUD$15.6 billion the Pacific’s largest ever business investment, predict it will only fuel corruption, conflict and HIV on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

PNG’s law and order problems are not simply problems of violence, but these highlight the weakness of the PNG state with respect to what is theoretically its cardinal responsibility: the governance of security. Yet many communities also struggle with this same task, while cooperation between state and community is often less than it could be. Phrases such as ‘an epidemic of violence’ are commonplace, but just as the term ‘epidemic’ is in some ways misleading with respect to HIV, in PNG it can disguise the many etiologies of violence, their implication in broader processes of governance and development, and the differing moral analyses that converge on its regulation. Like endemic HIV, PNG’s law and order problems pose a long-term challenge.