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Human rights efforts challenged

Monday 16 May 2016 | Published in Regional

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PAPUA NEW GUINEA – Papua New Guinea’s support for the death penalty and its struggles with gender equality and police brutality have been criticised at a United Nations review in Geneva.

The country’s human rights record was scrutinised at its second Universal Periodic Review last week.

Several countries encouraged PNG to decriminalise homosexuality, to improve its rates of violence against women – some of the worst in the world – and to put a stop to police brutality.

They also recommended that PNG establish a national human rights body and impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

But Papua New Guinea’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Fred Sarufa, said the country would not be swayed by international pressure to outlaw the death penalty.

Capital punishment has never been outlawed in PNG but seldom utilised, but its use was reactivated by the government in 2013 after a spate of violent killings drew international attention.

Sarufa said PNG has a right to the death penalty and it will not be deterred.

“We have a law that prescribes the death penalty as part and parcel of our judicial system and until and unless the appropriate authority, which is the National Parliament of Papua New Guinea decides, based on the sentiments of Papua New Guineans, we still have in the penal code the death penalty,” Sarufa told a nearly empty hall in Geneva.

Several other countries also raised concerns about the rights of the LGBT community in a country where the penal code criminalises sexual relations “against the order of nature,” which has been interpreted to apply to same-sex relationships.

Sarufa said PNG had not taken steps to decriminalise same-sex relationships, saying that in a country with many thousands of cultures and ways of life, changing the law would require an extensive campaign of consultation.

“We have not gone down that path yet,” he said. “What needs to be done, in my delegation’s view, is that this will require a national level consultation which has never happened before on this issue.”

Sarufa accepted many of the other criticisms levelled towards his country’s human rights record, including concerns about gender equality, violence against women and children, police brutality, and the treatment of indigenous landowners.

However, he said great strides had been made to improve Papua New Guinea’s human rights situation.

Sarufa pointed to the ratification of several treaties, the passing of a family protection act, a national disability policy, the adoption of sign language as an official language, and legislation to outlaw violence based on sorcery beliefs.

But he conceded that a lack of resources has hampered progress.

“The challenges we have are real, where the resource constraints compounded by issues of access to resources is a serious impediment we continue to face,” he said.

Sarufa told the United Nations that his government has accepted a Supreme Court ruling on the asylum seeker detention centre on Manus Island, and is working with Australia to make arrangements for those detained there.

The Supreme Court last month ruled that holding Australia’s asylum seekers on the island was illegal, and the prime minister, Peter O’Neill, has said the centre will be closed.

Sarufa’s announcement is a further setback for Australian officials hoping the centre can stay open, despite its being illegal.

Only a few countries raised the issue of Manus, including Fiji, Sweden, and Mexico, which all called for an end to mandatory detention.

Fiji said the 850 men still detained on Manus Island must be released. The country has been vehemently opposed to Canberra’s offshore detention policy, calling it a “high-handed and arrogant pattern of behaviour” by Australia.

Australia and New Zealand did not mention Manus in their statements to the review.

Sarufa said his government accepts that the detention programme is illegal, and it will be ended.

“Indeed, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court has made a ruling on that centre in Manus where asylum seekers are processed. We are working with the government of Australia on appropriate arrangements in recognition of the Supreme Court decision,” he said.

- RNZI