Clinton promotes human rights in Papua New Guinea

MATTHEW LEE - Associated Press
Women in traditional dress stand behind U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during an women's empowerment event at Parliament House Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010 in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)
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Women in traditional dress stand behind U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during an women's empowerment event at Parliament House Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010 in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday warned the people and government of Papua New Guinea that human rights conditions must improve if the impoverished South Pacific nation, awash in rape, domestic violence and police brutality, is to develop.

The first secretary of state to visit the country in 12 years, Clinton also urged government officials in the capital, Port Moresby, to embrace a robust anti-corruption agenda amid concerns that a windfall from a massive natural gas find and vast mineral deposits will fuel already widespread graft and make matters worse, especially for women and children.

Without proper oversight and accountability, human rights activists and others fear revenue from mining and a $15 billion Exxon Mobil gas project could overwhelm the rural country, populated by more than 800 indigenous tribes.

"If they are not handled the right way, they can actually end up making a country poorer rather than richer," Clinton said. She noted the paradox of what some have called a "resource curse" and praised the government for a plan to set up a sovereign wealth fund to handle the money.

Women's empowerment is one of Clinton's pet issues, and she lamented the particularly bleak situation in Papua New Guinea, where rights advocates have documented increases in witch hunts and killings of those suspected of sorcery. Rights groups have also noted sharp rises in physical and sexual violence, most of which goes unpunished, and soaring rates of HIV/AIDS.

Clinton said the U.S. would be working on a program with Exxon Mobil to "end the culture of violence against women and girls in Papua New Guinea."

"No country in the 21st century can advance when half its population is left behind," she told a group of women's rights activists.

Prime Minister Michael Somare denied the problem was as grave as reported. "We sometimes get a picture painted of how cruel we are to our women, and this is not true," he said. "This is a perception from people like yourself and people who write about us. That is what they like to print about this country."

After meeting with Somare, whose coalition came to power in 2007 elections that observers said were marred by bribery, voter intimidation and influence peddling, Clinton said the government must do more to serve and protect its people.

"There will have to be a commitment to good government, transparency and accountability" to achieve democracy, development and prosperity, she said.

Papua New Guinea, north of Australia, is a mountainous, jungle-clad nation of more than 600 islands and some 7 million people. UNICEF reported in 2008 that it has among the world's highest rates of domestic violence, and said the police statistic that 8 percent of women reported they had been raped probably vastly understates the real number because the crime is underreported.

The vast majority of Papua New Guineans live subsistence lifestyles in villages often cut off from other communities by the rugged terrain. Tribal customs have more influence than national laws and there are few police. The male-dominated culture affords women little standing, UNICEF and other researchers say.

Papua New Zealand's police, outnumbered by private security guards because of their ineffectiveness, have been accused on numerous abuses, including gang rape, arbitrary killings and mistreatment of prisoners, according to the State Department's most recent human rights report.

Amnesty International's 2010 report for Papua New Guinea was equally grim.

"Sorcery-related killings increased," it said in a synopsis. "The government did little to effectively address the situation or to bring the perpetrators to justice. Women and girls suffered physical and sexual violence, and those responsible were seldom brought to justice."

Clinton's stop in Papua New Guinea comes in the middle of a two-week trip to the Asia-Pacific region. She has already visited Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Malaysia. She wraps up the tour in New Zealand and Australia.