Law and Disorder: Australia Must Act to Address Police Brutality in Papua New Guinea

Who is most frightening to the average citizen of Papua New Guinea: sorcerers, the people who murder accused sorcerers, or the police who are supposed to protect the public from the other two? The sad fact is that police in PNG, who should be part of the solution to a recent wave of sorcery-related attacks, are in fact a part of the problem.  A violent and abusive police force cannot fight crime effectively.  Australia, as the major international donor to the PNG police, should use its influence to help clean up the force.

Since 2004, Human Rights Watch has conducted investigations into police violence in six locations in Papua New Guinea and interviewed more than 275 people on this issue.  Our researchers found a dismal picture.  Police regularly engaged in severe beatings, rape and torture.  They often target young men – assumed to be ‘raskols’, or members of criminal gangs – for brutal treatment.  Boys as young as 12 years old described being whipped on the face with umbrella spokes, burned on the back with long sticks of cured tobacco, beaten with crowbars, slashed, and shot.  Police made no attempt to hide such tactics – it’s business as usual.

In the six areas of the country we visited to investigate police treatment of children, almost everyone we interviewed said that they were beaten when arrested.  Many showed us fresh wounds and scars consistent with their stories.  Doctors and nurses confirmed attending cases of people badly injured by police.  Social workers, staff of juvenile detention centres, and others working with child detainees said the vast majority of children they worked with were beaten.  One man told a Human Rights Watch researcher that police beat him and forced him to fight naked with other detainees in a Port Moresby police station when he was 16 or 17 years old.  As he put it: ‘We thought it was their job and we just had to accept it.’

Girls and women, as well as boys and men, report being raped in the bushes, in police cars, in police barracks and in police stations – often by more than one officer, which is known as ‘pack rape’ or ‘lineup sex’.  We documented several cases of women who were raped by police when they went to the station to report a crime.

Some police in PNG acknowledge that their ability to solve crimes is deteriorating.  The reasons are not hard to understand.  More than half the residents of Port Moresby reported a few years ago that they felt less safe when the police were around than when they were not present.  Communities outraged by police violence refuse to cooperate with criminal investigations.

To stop police violence, PNG officials need to take three clear steps: 1) government leaders should publicly repudiate police violence; 2) law enforcement bodies should monitor violent incidents; and 3) perpetrators of violence should be prosecuted as criminals.  At present, almost no police are held to account for their actions.  The head of internal investigations in Alotau in Milne Bay province, on the eastern end of mainland Papua New Guinea, explained to Human Rights Watch how he handled a typical case.  A 14-year-old boy claimed that police assaulted and robbed him, he said, but the boy could not name the officers (police often do not wear nametags).  ‘If he’s really concerned about his case, he should come back and assist me with my investigation,’ the officer told me.  ‘He gave all the work to me and went away and expects me to do the work.  Then I see they’re not concerned about the case, so I just sit down.’

As the largest international donor to PNG, Australia has a key role to play as well.  Canberra is providing almost A$390 million in development assistance this year.  And although PNG has been very reluctant to cooperate in some police matters, Australian Federal Police actively advise the government.  They should be doing more to push the PNG police to strengthen its internal affairs office and to create a full-fledged police ombudsman.  Most important, they should be insisting on prosecution of police who commit violent crimes.  Australia’s programs to train PNG police will have little value unless those who receive it are held accountable for following it.

Public outcry in PNG around sorcery killings has opened up an opportunity for Australia to push these issues.  The Prime Minister’s trip a year ago, the first in eleven years, should have helped to thaw the relationship.  Now the Parliamentary Secretary on International Development Assistance, Bob McMullan, and the top levels of AusAID need to make this issue a priority with their interlocutors in Port Moresby.  Just to have the issue of human rights somewhere on the agenda is not enough, with police misconduct rising to such extremes.  It needs to be front and centre.

Carroll Bogert is Associate Director of Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org).  She will address the topic of ‘The Human Rights Spoilers and How to Deal with Them’ in a keynote address for the Human Rights Law Resource Centre on 2 March.  Carroll will be in Australia from 2 to 6 March to explore the possibility of establishing a Human Rights Watch office in Australia.