Responding to rioting and looting in the cities of Port Moresby and Lae in Papua New Guinea that has so far reportedly left at least 16 people dead and prompted the government to declare a State of Emergency, Amnesty International’s Pacific Researcher Kate Schuetze said:
“It is imperative that Papua New Guinea authorities respond to this violence in a way that protects human rights and avoids further loss of life. The use of unnecessary or excessive force by law enforcement officers will only serve to escalate tensions. Alarmingly, an existing police directive authorizes the use of lethal force in violation of human rights standards. All law enforcement officers have the ultimate duty to uphold the right to life and to protect peaceful protesters.
“Under the newly declared State of Emergency, there is a clear risk that further human rights abuses and violations might occur in the course of the authorities’ response to the present situation. Law enforcement functions must be discharged in ways that fully comply with human rights obligations, particularly the right to life.”
“The Papua New Guinean authorities must establish a prompt, effective and independent investigation into all deaths that have occurred and ensure accountability in accordance with the right to a fair trial.”
Looting and protests erupted across Port Moresby and Lae on Wednesday 10 January after around 200 military and police personnel walked off the job at around 10am that morning.
The police and military officers alleged wrongful salary deductions had caused them financial hardship. They proceeded to Parliament to raise their concerns directly with the Prime Minister, who has since issued a statement suggesting authorities are working to correct the pay “error”. By Wednesday evening, widespread rioting, looting and property damage was reported across Port Moresby with several buildings on fire. Hospitals reported receiving casualties with burns and bullet wounds. At the time of publication on 11 January, at least 16 deaths have been reported. Full details of the deaths, including who is responsible, have not yet been established. Nine of the casualties were reported in the capital Port Moresby, with seven reported in Lae, the country’s second largest city.
On the morning of 11 January, the government deployed a military response and said it was flying in extra military and police officers from other provinces to restore law and order.
The Police Commissioner David Manning called for all people in Port Moresby to “clear the streets” and “go home” on 11 January. He referred to existing standing orders on the use of force and firearms that came into effect in 2023 – that authorize the use of lethal force against anyone carrying a bush knife – which Amnesty International has previously noted violate international human rights law.
Firearms are never an appropriate tool for the policing of protests, and any use of potential lethal force must be strictly necessary in response to imminent threat of death or serious injury (and even then must be limited so as to only target the individuals that present such a threat).
Late on 11 January, the Prime Minister declared a State of Emergency of 14 days in PNG and also suspended Police Commissioner Manning and several other senior public officials.
Like many other countries globally, Papua New Guinea has experienced a sharp rise in the cost of living in recent months meaning that the pay issues impacting police and public servants may have had a significant impact on existing financial hardship. The United Nations recommends a police to population ratio of one police officer for every 220 people, whereas the current ratio in Papua New Guinea is 1:1145. This means police remain severely understaffed and ill-equipped to effectively fulfil their law enforcement role.