Government Declares State of Emergency in PNG
Papua New Guinea's parliament has declared a state of emergency in the capital and two Highlands provinces today (25 May).
IHS Global Insight Perspective
Papua New Guinea's parliament today (25 May) declared a state of emergency in three regions of the country, as the government of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill sought to reassert its hold on power.
The security situation remains stable in the capital, but events suggest the potential for the situation to escalate: the sitting of parliament was delayed after police loyal to former prime minister Sir Michael Somare blockaded the building.
The declaration gives the police greater powers to ensure law and order and could potentially be used to delay the elections, currently scheduled for June. The situation in the country remains uncertain and the standoff is damaging Papua New Guinea's international reputation.
State of Emergency
Parliament finally convened today after multiple attempts earlier in the week. The previous attempts failed for a lack of quorum, with many MPs having travelled to their constituencies to begin campaigning for the elections scheduled in June. However, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill and his supporters clearly regarded the Supreme Court's 21 May ruling as sufficiently important to merit their immediate attention; O'Neill cancelled a planned diplomatic visit to Japan to attend today's session.
According to Radio New Zealand International, the state of emergency covers the National Capital District (Port Moresby) and the Highlands provinces of Hela and Southern Highlands. Radio Australia's correspondent in Papua New Guinea reported today (25 May) that parliament reserved the right to extend the state of emergency to "any other places … that pose a threat to national security". The declaration gives the police greater powers to ensure law and order and permits the call out of members of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Under Section 246 of the constitution, during "a period of declared national emergency" parliament can extend its term of office "for a term not exceeding the length of the period [of emergency] and such time afterwards as is necessary to allow a general election to be arranged and held". Given previous attempts by parliament to defer the June elections for six months, this provision could prove significant (see Papua New Guinea: 5 April 2012: PNG Parliament Votes to Delay Election).
The government threatened to declare a state of emergency in March this year as a result of threats to major resource projects in the Highlands. Ultimately, the government went for the less dramatic option of a troop callout (see Papua New Guinea: 30 March 2012: ExxonMobil Declares End to Land Dispute at PNG LNG Project). Today, however, O'Neill cited the threat to these resource projects as the motivation for the declaration of the state of emergency. Although ExxonMobil recently expressed concern about the potential for election-related violence, there have not been any recent indications of unrest in the Highlands. It is notable therefore that parliament has moved to a state of emergency now, when its authority has been challenged.
As it did with previous unfavourable rulings, parliament also passed a motion nullifying the 21 May Supreme Court decision that provoked the latest standoff. O'Neill stated that the "authority of government … needs to be re-established before we go to the polls".
Order in Court
The declaration came a day after Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah dramatically stormed into the Supreme Court and attempted to arrest Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia (see Papua New Guinea: 24 May 2012: Deputy Prime Minister Leads Troops Into PNG Supreme Court). Sir Salamo chaired the Supreme Court bench that ruled on 21 May that the government was illegitimate and reinstated former prime minister Sir Michael Somare (see Papua New Guinea: 22 May 2012: PNG Police Defy Courts to Prevent Reinstatement of Former PM). In a statement to parliament today, Namah described Sir Salamo as "a threat to national security" who had been behaving like "a tyrant drunk with power".
Sir Salamo appeared in court today only to have the case adjourned to July—effectively leaving the issue in limbo. This is probably the best outcome for the government as it puts off the issue until after the polls and leaves the charges against Sir Salamo untested (he did not even have to enter a plea today).
Radio New Zealand International today reported that O'Neill had described Namah's storming of the Supreme Court as "unfortunate". International reaction to Namah's actions has been less restrained. Australian prime minister Julia Gillard spoke to O'Neill to express her concern over the developments, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Bob Carr said: "It's not good for the image that Papua New Guinea sends to the world, to its diplomatic partners or to its investors". Japanese minister of foreign affairs Koichiro Gemba stated today that his country was "concerned about the situation … in PNG". The Commonwealth today called on Papua New Guinea to respect the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that these were "core Commonwealth values, which must be preserved".
Policing the Police
The attempt to recall parliament was briefly held up by a blockade. Between 20 and 40 police took up position outside parliament and barred access to the chambers. The Australian Associated Press spoke with one police officer who said "No one is getting in until after the elections", suggesting they supported the position of former prime minister Sir Michael Somare. The blockade ended when a larger group of police "briefly set up a staging area around the corner from parliament", Radio New Zealand International reported today. O'Neill said that parliament could not be prevented from sitting "by a group of rogue police". The roles were reversed earlier this week when a group of police officers prevented Sir Michael from entering Government House to be sworn in by the governor-general.
There was further evidence of division within the police yesterday. Superintendent Joseph Tondop, three other police officers, and a lawyer were assaulted "within the … court premises" yesterday, allegedly by Mobile Squad police officers from the Highlands, O'Neill's political stronghold, according to a report in the local The National newspaper today. Tondop is a former commander of the National Capital District police. The incident bears a resemblance to a confrontation between Port Moresby police and a Highlands Mobile Squad in April (see Papua New Guinea: 18 April 2012: Rival Police Clash in PNG Capital amid Supreme Court Standoff).
Outlook and Implications
At present the security situation in Port Moresby and the Highlands does not appear to have been significantly affected by the political and legal standoff, although the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has issued travel advice calling for its citizens to avoid the area around parliament and the Supreme Court. The declaration of a state of emergency was probably intended as a pre-emptive measure. Nothing that O'Neill or his supporters have said indicates that they are planning on using the emergency declaration to delay the elections. However, given that the possibility exists it is worth noting that this would be a very damaging direction for the country. It would almost certainly provoke public protests in Port Moresby and other population centres.
More serious is the increasingly open division within the ranks of the police and security forces. Again, the problem is less significant than it initially sounds: the numbers of officers involved tends to be small, involving units of between 10 to 40 officers; potential conflicts have so far been resolved through mediation by higher-ranking officers and internecine rivalry and at times conflict is far from unusual in the police at the best of times. Nevertheless, the situation is inherently destabilising and carries the potential for minor incidents to escalate into more serious confrontations.
- Indian government releases DPCO 2013, expanding price controls to 652 drugs
- Key US data releases and events
- Budget 2014: US administration signals greater willingness to compromise
- Kremlin power struggle becomes evident as influential Russian political ideologue resigns
- Global Economic Impact of the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster
- Mercedes-Benz unveils important new S-Class
- GDP, inflation, retail sales, public finances, and Bank of England minutes all feature in UK Economic Week starting 20 May
- Consumer spending and export recovery drive Japan's GDP growth in Q1
- Slow start to 2013 highlights ongoing economic challenges in Vietnam
- Chinese vehicle sales and production rise to over 2 mil. units in March, Q1 sales up 13.2% y/y – CAAM