Australia, Papua New Guinea and Human Rights

By Jonathan Schultz | 04 Jul 13
Colour photo of fence around Christmas Island Detention Centre

By Jonathan Schultz. This article is part of our July focus on “Australia in the World”. Click here for more articles in this issue.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) gained its independence from Australia in 1975.  Since that time, Australia has continued to play important and changing roles as a source of aid and investment, trading partner and one of PNG’s most important international partners.  These roles vary greatly in their implications for human rights, from aspects of the aid program that explicitly address human rights concerns and others that risk compromising human rights, to the inherently problematic Manus Island detention centre.  Nonetheless, there is scope across the board for the Australian government to place a far stronger emphasis on human rights in its relationship with PNG.

Australia’s interventionist approach gives it a degree of leverage and consequent responsibility for policy and practice in PNG

Following PNG’s independence in 1975, the money that Australia had previously spent on the administration of its colony was instead paid directly into the new country’s treasury as budgetary support.  This approach fitted the prevailing optimism in both Australia and PNG regarding the prospects for the new country and the value placed on respect for the sovereignty of former colonies around the world.  Since that time, there has been a progressive shift toward a more hands-on, interventionist approach with correspondingly less respect for sovereignty.

During the 1980s, aid to PNG shifted from budgetary support, which the PNG government was free to spend as it decided, to funding for specific projects and programs.  Since the 1990s, Australia has increasingly made the allocation of aid dependent on the domestic policies in recipient countries, a practice known as conditionality.  During the 2000s, Australia’s approach became still more interventionist, notably including the placement of Australian officials in positions of responsibility and as advisors in the PNG bureaucracy.

Australia’s interventionist approach gives it a degree of leverage and consequent responsibility for policy and practice in PNG.  In respect to principles of human rights, the record is decidedly mixed.  On the one hand, major components of Australia’s aid program are dedicated, directly or indirectly, to improving respect for human rights.  For instance, by broadening the reach and improving the effectiveness of PNG’s legal system, Law and Justice sector programs aim to improve the access to the justice system and the human rights that it enshrines.

Similarly, health and education programs aim to improve the delivery of those services in PNG.  These programs  have been criticised as ineffective, and the large salaries for Australian officials described as a waste of resources.  Despite the criticisms, these programs are at least aligned with human rights principles.

Other aspects of Australia’s development assistance are more contentious.  For instance, policies enacted in the name of economic development have disrupted people’s access to and use of land.  This kind of change is particularly dramatic in a country like PNG, where most people lead largely self-sufficient lifestyles, growing and catching their own food and building shelter with local materials.

The transfer of asylum-seekers from Australia to the detention centre on Manus Island is done with the explicit purpose of “outsourcing” Australia’s human rights responsibilities to PNG

This “subsistence affluence” guarantees the basic necessities for much of the population, but offers little opportunity for earning cash and in places is stretched beyond its sustainable limits by population growth.  Moreover, the subsistence economy cannot readily be taxed to raise revenue to pay for services like health or education.  Market-based theories of economic development have often stressed the ways that the customary land tenure upon which the subsistence economy depends impedes economic growth.

While there is undoubtedly some truth in this analysis, it ignores the benefits of the subsistence economy which are jeopardised when people lose access to their land.  Logging, palm oil plantations and mining operations have had devastating effects on the well-being of local and downstream communities.  In the most extreme case, the Panguna mine in Bougainville was a key driver of the ten year civil war between the PNG military and the separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

Australian official involvement with large-scale commercial projects in PNG goes beyond the relatively closely scrutinised aid program.  A key example is the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC), which helps Australian companies to export goods and services, especially to developing countries, by providing financial guarantees underwritten by the Australian Treasury.

The most troubling aspect of the EFIC is its lack of transparency: unlike comparable agencies in other countries, the EFIC is exempt from Freedom of Information laws, and many details of its operations remain secret.  This lack of transparency violates the principle of freedom of information and means that there are inadequate safeguards that the EFIC’s activities do not contribute to other human rights abuses.  Such concerns are warranted in PNG, where the EFIC has invested public money in the massive Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects currently underway.  These projects have been marked by almost constant disputes with landholders and, based on the experience of other extractive industries, are unlikely to benefit the wider PNG community.

However, the most disturbing aspect of the Australia-PNG relationship for human rights lies outside the domains of aid and commercial development.  The transfer of asylum-seekers from Australia to the detention centre on Manus Island is done with the explicit purpose of “outsourcing” Australia’s human rights responsibilities to PNG.

In a strange inversion of the diminishing respect for sovereignty in its approach to PNG, Australia makes explicit use of PNG’s sovereignty to decline responsibility for the fate of people who have sought asylum in Australia.  PNG not only lacks protections that the Australian judicial system affords asylum-seekers, but is ill-equipped to provide adequate care for detainees.  Even Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship, not usually known for its emphasis on the well-being of asylum-seekers, has delivered a scathing assessment of conditions at the Manus Island detention centre.

In conclusion, there is great variation in Australian policies towards PNG between those that aim to improve respect for human rights, those that risk subordinating human rights to the elusive benefits of economic growth and the use of PNG to evade Australia’s human rights responsibilities.  Recent reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch highlight significant human rights violations in PNG, most notably appalling gender-based violence.

There is thus ample scope for Australia to elevate the standing of human rights in its policies and practice, as has been recommended by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. In particular, the benefits that Australia’s detention centre in Manus brings to people living there should not be at the expense of the human rights of detainees.

Dr Jonathan Schultz recently completed a PhD on a history of
Australian engagements with the Pacific islands. His work “Overseeing and Overlooking” analyses Australian policy under the Hawke, Keating and Howard Governments (1988-2007). He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of the South Pacific and is a regular commentator on Australia-Pacific island relations.