Papua New Guinea: Aust. exec admits role in human rights abuse

A Paga Hill home after it was demolished. Photo by Jeffry Feeger.

The International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) released a report on October 8 documenting a forced eviction that took place in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, on May 12. Residents of Paga Hill had their homes demolished en masse by the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary.

Those who resisted the forced eviction were attacked with sticks, iron rods and machetes. At one stage police even fired live rounds at bystanders.

The demolition was conducted to make way for a luxury estate being spearheaded by the Paga Hill Development Company (PHDC) ― a company largely run from Australia, with significant Australian shareholdings.

PHDC’s chairperson and secretary is Gudmundur Fridriksson, an executive who heads Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. Fridriksson has specific responsibility for the controversial Cape York Welfare Reform Trial (although I understand as of October he is on “extended leave”).

The ISCI’s report presented evidence that raises questions about the land deal behind this proposed development, but it never suggested that PHDC condoned or indeed directed the brutal events of May 12. Indeed, it was assumed responsibility lay entirely with the PNG police.

However, we must now pause for thought, courtesy of new allegations voiced by PHDC’s own director (and shareholder), George Hallit, on Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat program.

During his 10 minute interview, Hallit seems to suggest that PHDC not only directed the forced eviction exercise ― or “forced relocation” as he put it ― but they even hired the excavation equipment used to crush the homes, as weeping families looked on.

“At the end of the day there are only a few suppliers of excavators as you can imagine in Port Moresby ... we just went to the first, we’ve paid for their use”, Hallit told Pacific Beat.

If the line between public and private administration of this demolition was not already blurry, it became more so as Hallit appeared to suggest PHDC directed the police operation.

“The [Paga Hill] settlers had actually challenged the consent order in the district court and failed [on May 11],” he said. “So we waited for that. Now they sought a stay order in the national court on that [next] day and they succeeded. And when the eviction was in process, when they arrived with that, we stopped.”

So who was in fact directing the demolition, the police or the developer? From this statement it sounds like the developer.

Why was a private company providing operational assets for a policing operation? Why did the developer allow the demolition to take place, when they were aware a national court hearing was pending that day?

And lastly, in a rather overlooked twist, why did the developer permit police to demolish properties that lay outside the boundaries of its lease?

Hallit also argued on Pacific Beat that PHDC had bought alternative land for Paga Hill residents at Six Mile, the site of a large decommissioned dump and a 17,000 person settlement.

“We have actually bought a piece of land at Six Mile, NCDC has agreed to turn it into freehold title”, Hallit claimed.

Unfortunately, this is not quite how it works in PNG. The land in Six Mile is, by PHDC’s own admission, customarily owned.

To be converted into freehold title, demanding procedures set out in the 1963 Land (Tenure Conversion) ActLand (Tenure Conversion) Act must be observed. Even once converted to freehold, “the land may be transferred or leased for a longer period than 25 years only with the consent of the Land Board”.

So for fundamental legal reasons, the National Capital District Commission cannot simply sign over customary land to PHDC, as Hallit suggested.

However, Hallit not only claimed PHDC had land awaiting Paga Hill residents, but that the residents were in fact looking forward to the “forced relocation”.

He argued: “We’ve worked with them, they’ve been in agreement, and they looked forward to the move and even on the day of the eviction, which was essentially a forced relocation, they knew full well it was coming.”

In the images leaked to ISCI from a government source, the community look anything but happy or prepared. In fact when police opened fire, residents looked terrified.

Hallit remembers things differently: “On the day of the eviction, we were working with them, we had big bags they were putting in all their possessions from their houses and it was only until they had actually left their houses, and we would assist them to be moving, that we would use the excavators to basically knock over their house as the final act, such that they wouldn’t be returning.”

Indeed, according to Hallit, residents were anxious to leave Paga Hill: “This [Paga Hill] is not a happy environment.”

He continued:“It's well documented from independent parties that the current residents on the settlement are in fear of dysentery and sexual assault on a regular basis.”

The only evidence PHDC has publicly cited in this respect is a blog entry written by a US photographer. And even then, the Paga women interviewed noted their community “is safe”, it was outsiders they feared.

If Hallit played PHDC’s “good cop” in the company’s media appearances, then the “bad cop” has been Fridriksson.

When interviewed by The Australian on October 9, he claimed, “there are just squatters and settlers and criminals hanging out there [at Paga Hill]”. This is a common stereotype used to demonise informal settlements in PNG.

However, as Michael Goddard has persuasively argued, it is a stereotype fundamentally lacking in empirical evidence.

Indeed, in a study conducted by resident anthropologist, Joe Moses, with assistance from University of PNG academic Dicks Rae Thomas, it was found that the community at Paga Hill was made up predominantly of skilled and semi-skilled workers who are gainfully employed in the formal (54%) and informal sector (45%).

Moreover, their residency at Paga Hill is by no means new. Indeed, the original Kikori settlers arrived in the early 1960s, with permission from the hill’s traditional owners, who deny having alienated their land to the state. Such is the complexity of urban land relations in PNG.

It was also suggested by Fridriksson that Paga Hill is merely a collection of shanty homes: “There would not be more than three houses there that qualify as a house. It is just rocks on top of corrugated iron held down by nails. It's like Rio de Janeiro or Manila.”

I am not sure how the residents of Rio de Janeiro or Manila would feel about being used as the baseline for urban decay, but the fact is Paga Hill does not correspond to the developer’s caricature.

During my research on the forced eviction, I was supplied with photographs by neighbor Sam Moko, which he had taken in July 2010.

These homes which punctuate Paga’s shoreline are a colorful example of the type of serious investment many local residents have plumbed into their living space. And much of their opposition to the development has been grounded in the derisory compensation offered for a lifetime’s work.

Interestingly, when questioned about two auditor-general reports, and three Public Accounts Committee reports, censuring the consulting firm, CCS Anvil ― which Hallit ran with Fridriksson ― the executives have been more circumspect.

The accusations levelled at CCS Anvil ― a firm that was also appointed project manager for the Paga Hill development ― are extremely serious.

Both the auditor-general and Public Accounts Committee claim that as an agent for PNG’s Public Curator’s Office, CCS Anvil personally pocketed money from deceased estates, which it was meant to deposit in Estate Trust Accounts.

They also claim CCS Anvil’s PNG principal was certifying government payments to his own firm, for as much as K500,000 (about $A250,000).

Let us hope a few Australian politicians take note of these new admissions. Papua New Guineans already believe their friendship with Australia is a decidedly one-sided affair. Failing to act on these serious allegations involving expatriates in PNG, will only alienate Australia’s important neighbour further.

[Dr Kristian Lasslett is a member of the executive board of the International State Crime Initiative. Photos below.]