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This was not an eviction it was a crime – The Paga Hill demolition

Resident destruction

On 12 May 2012, heavily armed police officers attempted to forcefully evict residents at the Paga Hill settlement in Port Moresby. Lying behind the forced eviction is a long standing dispute over who has tenure to the land in Paga Hill. On one hand, settlement residents claim they were given permission to reside on Paga Hill by its customary owners; while on the other Paga Hill Development Company (PHDC) believe they legitimately acquired a 99 year lease from the Papua New Guinea state in 2000.

In light of the forced eviction, and the PHDC’s response (see below), I wrote an article summarising a 2009 Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report on the disputed land. In response to this article a representative from PHDC composed a thoughtful reply that articulates the developer’s views on the PAC report. This sort of dialogue is to be welcomed. However, with respect to the legitimacy of the forced eviction itself, PHDC’s views are much less clear. In their response PHDC write “in spite of our best efforts to facilitate their move, a tough line had to eventually be taken”.

Lets be very clear on this matter, the actions of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) were not “tough”, rather they were a clear violation of the resident’s constitutionally enshrined human rights. Moreover, the demolition of the homes also violated international principles on evictions.

The UN’s Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development Based Evictions and Displacement, declare where evictions are necessary, there is a duty on the part of the state to observe certain guidelines. In particular, state officials should allow neutral monitors to be present at the eviction, while every effort must be taken to protect both the property of residents, and vulnerable groups such as women and children. The principles also state that police officers involved in the eviction must observe the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

Unfortunately these principles were ignored by state authorities when they attempted to evict Paga Hill residents.  Not only were the homes of residents destroyed, so were their contents (see Image 1 and 2).

Image 2: The path of destruction (Source: Jeffry Feeger)

Furthermore, when opposition leader Dame Carol Kidu expressly raised concerns over the illegitimate manner in which the eviction was being carried out – in line with UN principles – she was assaulted by heavily armed police officers (The National, 14/5/2012). Police then used firearms to disperse concerned Paga Hill residents. The footage released on the incident, suggests the officers were not under “imminent threat of death or serious injury”, as is required under the aforementioned principles.

Compounding matters, those displaced by the demolition now reside under makeshift structures, and tents. This has had a particularly profound impact on children and women in the settlement (see Image 3 and 4).

Image 3: A boy attempts to complete his homework under a temporary shelter (Source: Jeffry Feeger)

Image 4: Bottom left, a man and his baby sleep under a piece of timber (Source: Jeffry Feeger)

 It was incumbent upon the authorities to not only use minimal force during the eviction exercise, but to ensure that a) the property of residents was carefully secured; and b) provisions were in place to protect the fundamental human rights of vulnerable community members, in particular children. From the visual and oral testimony made available, it does not appear these critical steps were taken, or the aforementioned principles observed.

In order to avoid further confusion, PHDC must clearly state whether they condemn the actions of the RPNGC.

With respect to PHDC’s criticism of the PAC report, a few issues are worth responding to. PHDC argue that my article repeats a series of “false allegations” made by PAC. Whether or not PAC’s allegations are indeed false as PHDC claim, in their press release dated 13 April 2012 the developer suggests, “investigations by both the Ombudsman Commission and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have found no wrong-doing on the part of PHDC, or the associated government entities in issuing the leases over the site” [italics added]. Then on 14 May 2012, a PHDC spokesperson is quoted in the Post-Courier, stating “the fact remains that Paga Hill Development Company have had a lease over the site for over ten years, a process which both the Public Accounts Committee and the Ombudsman Commission found to be perfectly legitimate”.

Perhaps my understanding of “wrong-doing” and “perfectly legitimate” is different to that of PHDC, but surely any sensible reading of the 2009 PAC report, would support the conclusion that the parliamentary committee was extremely critical of PHDC, and the legitimacy of its claim over Paga Hill. In light of the eviction, the April press release, and the company’s public statements in the eviction’s aftermath, summarising these findings and correcting the record became a matter of some public importance.

To avoid further confusion in this respect, perhaps PHDC should consider redrafting their 13 April 2012 press release (I accept PHDC’s point that they have issued a press release refuting the accusations made against them – unfortunately this is not available on their website). Furthermore, rather than telling the media that PAC found PHDC’s lease over Paga Hill to be “perfectly legitimate”, it is essential journalists are properly briefed on PHDC’s position, which is more clearly set out in the aforementioned reply, i.e. “The PAC report makes a number of false allegations that would have provided grounds for legal action had it not been for the fact that they were made under Parliamentary Privilege”.

Finally, I note PHDC now acknowledge the Department of Lands has failed to properly manage this vital area of Port Moresby. Indeed, PHDC observe, “on multiple occasions, the entire file at the Department of Lands has gone missing”. This is to be lamented, perhaps PHDC and Paga Hill residents are both victims of departmental mismanagement.

If this is the case, PHDC certainly should seek compensation. However, equally it must be acknowledged that in light of mismanagement of this land file, local residents may indeed have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed. Lets hope that the O’Neil government are able to initiate a robust response to this regrettable dispute.

*Kristian Lasslett is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster and he sits on the Executive Board of the International State Crime Initiative.

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