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Papua New Guinea: Controversial Law Stayed After UN Official Expressed Concerns

(May 1, 2012) On April 27, 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, expressed concern about trends in the governance of Papua New Guinea (PNG), stating that “Papua New Guinea is on a slippery path to upending the constitutional order and undermining the rule of law.” (Papua New Guinea on 'Slippery Path' to Undermining Rule of Law, Warns UN Official, UN NEWS CENTRE (Apr. 27, 2012).) She went on to say that “national actors and their international partners” should cooperate to maintain the stability of the country through upholding the rule of law, the constitutional provisions, and international human rights standards. (Id.)

Pillay was particularly concerned about the question of the independence of the judiciary, criticizing a number of steps taken by the PNG government following a change in the regime in August 2011. “One after another, the Executive and Parliament have taken very worrying steps to interfere with judicial independence,” she stated. (Press Release, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Authorities in Papua New Guinea Must Respect Independence of Judiciary and Uphold Rule of Law – Pillay (Apr. 27, 2012).)

A key concern is the Judicial Conduct Act, adopted in March 2012, which Pillay argues has provisions that contradict the Constitution and establish a separate, parallel system for cases of judicial misconduct. (Id.; for background on the recent political history of PNG, see Jonathan Pearlman, Papua New Guinea Political Crisis Ends as Governor-General Changes Mind, THE TELEGRAPH (Dec. 20, 2012) & Bob Howarth, et al., Social Media Activism in PNG Plays Role in Political Upheaval, PACIFIC MEDIA CENTRE (Aug. 5, 2011).)) It was announced on April 30 that the National Court had stayed implementation of the law, pending a ruling on a challenge to the legislation. (PNG National Court Stays Judicial Conduct Act, RADIO AUSTRALIA (Apr. 30, 2012).)

The Act had been applied almost immediately, as two judges, Chief Justice Salamo Injia and Justice Kirriwom, were referred to the Governor-General for investigation and thereby effectively suspended from hearing cases. The nation's Supreme Court, a higher-level body than the National Court, in an April 11 ruling, determined that the referral for investigation of Injia was unconstitutional. Within days, the government introduced a bill in the legislature that would impose a sanction of up to seven years of imprisonment on judges who do not comply with the Act. (Press Release, supra; Judicial Conduct (Amendment) Act (draft of Apr. 16, 2012), PAPUA NEW GUINEA PERSPECTIVE.COM; Supreme and National Court of Papua New Guinea, PNG Judiciary website (last visited Apr. 30, 2012).)

Pillay added that the “judiciary must be allowed to operate free from external pressures, threats or executive or legislative interference – international law is clear on this matter.” (Press Release, supra.) Other issues on which she voiced concern are the constitutional requirements for when elections must be held, which she stated should be met, and the treatment of journalists. Several reporters have been physically attacked, apparently for what they wrote about the political situation in PNG. (Id.)

In one case, according to the Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF), police officers beat reporter Mark Kayok in Port Morseby, PNG, on April 21, 2012. The incident began with an attack by a mobile police unit on a police officer, in uniform, who had been meeting with the journalist. When Kayok tried to help the officer, it is alleged he was also beaten, and the attackers stated they were unhappy with how reporters portrayed the political situation in PNG. (PFF Condemns Police Bashing of PNG Journalist, PFF website (Apr. 22, 2012).) The Pacific Freedom Forum describes itself as “an advocacy group set up August 2008 in response to threats against media and other freedoms in the islands region.” (About PFF, PFF website, (last visited Apr. 30, 2012).)