PNG security ahead of the 2022 election

Photo by Roan Paul

As Papua New Guinea approaches an election year, the country’s policymakers must confront a range of critical security issues, from climate change to organised crime, Michael Kabuni writes.

Policymakers in the Pacific Island region face multifaceted security issues. That fact is not lost on the region’s leaders, as demonstrated by the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security, which expands the definition of security beyond the geostrategic concerns to human security. These non-traditional security issues such as food security, water security, and protection of valuable ocean resources feature prominently in the Boe Declaration.

For Papua New Guinea (PNG), the events of October and November 2021 alone show just how several security issues can strike simultaneously. These issues, including climate change-induced displacement, COVID-19, and transnational crime, have dominated national politics in the last two months, and will continue to do so in the lead up to next year’s election.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow was important for PNG, not least because it will be among the first nations to confront large scale climate change displacement and refugees. The country’s Carteret Atolls are increasingly becoming uninhabitable due to rise in sea levels. There are plans to relocate residents of this island to other parts of PNG – possibly to one of the bigger islands of Bougainville.

But internal resettlement has its own challenges: less than five per cent of land in PNG is assigned for government use. As such, resettlement will require complex negotiations with customary landowners. Compulsory land acquisitions are one way to go, but this requires compensation to landowners for the land at market price.

However, past experiences show that the government is not wiling to do that. For instance, when inhabitants of Manam Island from Madang Province were displaced by volcanic eruptions, they were resettled on customary land in Bogia on mainland Madang, where there are now occasional conflicts between mainland people and the settlers.

Despite the significance of COP26, the PNG prime minister missed the meeting because the country was grappling with another threat: COVID-19.

COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses in PNG’s health infrastructure and capacity. The country has less than 500 medical doctors and less than 5,000 hospital beds. Of significant concern is the fact that only roughly two per cent of the population of nine million has been fully vaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy, rough topography, a lack of road networks, and a host of other factors are hindering uptake.

Adding to these existing challenges, the funds for COVID-19 response, which are usually kept in a trust account within the PNG Department of Finance, were attacked by ransomware hackers on 22 October. Ransomware attacks work through a virus designed to enter a computer system or network undetected, allowing unauthorised access to hackers who then demand payment in exchange for return of control of the computer systems or network.

Affecting all levels of government, the cyber attack targeted the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMS), an information technology-based financial management, budgeting and accounting system that facilitates budgets and accounts for revenues, grants, expenditure, payment processing, and reporting. Although the government has said no ransom was paid to the hackers, and that the system was restored, the extent of damage is uncertain.

In addition to these threats, the National Fisheries Authority (NFA) reported on 3 November that illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing in PNG remains the single most significant threat to the long term sustainability of PNG’s marine resources. PNG loses about 400 million kina every year due to IUU.

Monitoring PNG’s sea boundary has been challenging due to lack of capacity for both the NFA and the PNG navy. The problem extends to monitoring the 700km PNG-Indonesian land border. There are at least eight illegal entry points along this border that are largely unmonitored, resulting in movement of illegal materials, such as guns, which end up being used in tribal fights in the highlands.

These myriad security issues will only come into sharper focus in the next few months, as the national election is set for April 2022. There is reason to be concerned that the above issues may inflame already increasingly tense and violent elections. In 2017, there were over 100 recorded deaths directly related to the elections. Vandalism, arson, and destruction of life and property are becoming more regular features of political participation.

This internal division is contributing to a strengthening of transnational criminal syndicates, which tend to flourish in an environment of corruption and weak institutions. The increasing strength of these criminal networks was emphasised by a massive cocaine bust in 2020.

About 500kg of cocaine destined for Australia was discovered after the plane failed to take off from the outskirts of Port Moresby. Drug syndicates have adapted and changed, particularly in response to COVID-19, reminding policymakers that they must persist and adapt too.

In many cases, responses to these threats require international and regional cooperation. For example, there is very little PNG can do alone to reverse the impacts of climate change. Much responsibility lies with leaders of the developed world, who must honour their commitments at COP26 and continue to strengthen their efforts to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Equally, transnational criminal activities and IUU require regional intervention. Australia and New Zealand in particular have a big role to play in assisting Pacific Island countries with curbing IUU, which seriously hampers the economic development of small island nations.

At the national level, PNG needs to build its military, police, and health capacities. All three are underfunded and underequipped, in terms of personnel, infrastructure and equipment. As its recent deployment to Solomon Islands has shown, PNG needs to be ready for both national and regional contingencies.

Whilst much lies on external partners, PNG must invest more in its health and security sectors to manage its resources, keep its citizens safe, and secure its future beyond next year’s election.

Michael Kabuni

This piece was first published on Policy Forum.

One comment on "PNG security ahead of the 2022 election"

  1. Excellent overview. You might have included social unrest due to rise in COVID deaths.

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