O’Neill says defence pact giving US forces ‘immunity’ threatens PNG sovereignty

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Former PNG prime minister Peter O'Neill
Former PNG prime minister Peter O'Neill . . . "We are conceding our jurisdiction over to the US government so we just need to be careful about what we are saying." Image: PNG post-Courier

By Jeffrey Elapa in Port Moresby

Former Papua New Guinean prime minister Peter O’Neill says the controversial US-PNG Defence Cooperation Agreement threatens the country’s sovereignty.

He said the agreement negotiation was started in 2016 by his government but it was different in content from the one signed with the US.

O’Neill said the agreement encroached into sovereignty of Papua New Guinea, particularly Article 3 of the Agreement that relates to giving immunity to US military personnel.

He said this section stated that PNG was conceding its jurisdiction over to the visiting forces and it further stated that the US forces would have exclusive rights over criminal jurisdictions against US military personnel.

“Bear in mind the Australian ECP that was challenged by the Morobe Governor Luther Wenge and the Supreme Court nullified the agreement and this agreement is similar in nature.

“By when we are adopting in this Parliament, we are conceding our jurisdiction over to the US government so we just need to be careful about what we are saying.

“Additionally [the] agreement says that the US government has exclusive rights to exercise civil and administrative jurisdiction over the US personnel for all their acts while on duty.

Notification of arrest
“Any act done outside of duty will come under PNG jurisdiction but PNG authorities will immediately notify the US authorities, and properly transfer the personnel over to the US authorities, that the US authorities will be notified of the detention or arrest and that their properties will be inviolable.

“This is not in line with the provisions of our Constitution. That was tested by the Wenge challenge so I think Parliament and government need to take heed of this,” he said.

O’Neill said Paragraph 4 stated that US personnel would have the authority to impose discipline measures in the territory of PNG in accordance with US laws and regulations.

He said Manus, Jackson International Airport, Nazab Airport, Lae Port, Lombrum, and Momote Airport were areas the US would have “unlimited access” to and control over these facilities and areas.

“This is what we have agreed to and they will not pay one single toea and, according to Article 5 Paragraph 2, these properties will be given access without rental and charges to the US.

“And further on Article 6, US forces can position their equipment, their personnel, supplies and materials at any of these places.”

O’Neill said that when talking about “ownership” of infrastructure, nothing would be fixed to the ground and they would remove them and go away with them.

Exempt from all fees
He said the agreement, according to Article 9 paragraph 2, said that all the people that would come to PNG (US military personnel and contractors) would be exempted from all other immigration requirements — including payment of fees, taxes and duties — for entry or exiting the country.

He said that under Article 12 Paragraph 4, the US personnel would be exempted from paying taxes, including on income, salary and emoluments.

“So there will be no revenues from salary and wages tax and in Paragraph 5 [it] states that includes their contractors [that] they engaged [who] will be also exempted,” O’Neill said.

“I can’t see any agreement about training of our personnel, I can’t see any of our personnel being engaged with the US Army and I can’t see any specific investment in the infrastructure in the country.

“So what are we doing this agreement for?

“There is no specifics of what benefit is coming as it is not mentioned in the agreement.

“In the Ship Rider Agreement, we are giving almost exclusive rights to our waters. Therefore we need to be careful.

“I know our lawyers are having a look at it, and probably see [if] that it is in compliance with our Constitution, but I think there needs to be further clarity into this agreement,” he said.

Jeffrey Elapa is a PNG Post-Courier reporter. Republished with permission.

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