Internalizing Legal Norms: An Investigation into the Legitimacy of Payback Killings in the New Guinea Islands

Date01 March 2015
Published date01 March 2015
Internalizing Legal Norms: An Investigation into
the Legitimacy of Payback Killings in the New
Guinea Islands
Shaun Larcom
This article investigates beliefs concerning the legitimacy of the traditional
customary practice of payback in the New Guinea Islands; a practice that has
been illegal for more than a century. The practice of payback is described and
contextualized and a conceptual framework of norm internalization in a legal
transplant society is developed. The empirical results highlight a stark urban–
rural divide in attitudes. Yet, against expectations, those in urban environ-
ments (and in closer proximity to the state criminal law) are more likely to
agree with the use of payback. An expected relationship is found between the
ability to speak English and not agreeing with the use of payback. The empiri-
cal results suggest that the criminal law may be a weak force and that non-
legal channels may be more effective in transforming society.
In pre-colonial Papua New Guinea, a collection of small state-
less warrior societies, payback (or retributive homicide) was
deemed to be a legitimate sanction. Under custom (or perhaps
more appropriate customary law) a homicide, whether intentional
or deliberate, could be sanctioned with a payback killing, which
could be targeted toward the wrongdoer or a member of his or
her kin (Trompf 1994). Now a payback killing is an offence itself
Centre for Development, Environment and Policy, SOAS, University of London,
United Kingdom; Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge, Cambridge,
United Kingdom; Von Hugel Institute, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge,
Cambridge, United Kingdom. I am grateful to Chiara Berneri, Abhishek Chakravarty,
Michael Faure, Kate Johnston Ata’ata, Irma Kurniawan, Brendon McConnell, Megan
Richardson, Dan Rogger, Timothy Swanson, William Twining, Tim Willems, Gordon
Woodman and seminar participants at the Australian National University and the Gradu-
ate Institute Geneva for discussions and comments. I am also grateful to the editors and
reviewers for providing comments that greatly improved this article. This research was
made possible by the assistance of Fr.John Cabrido SDB, Fr.John Dixon SBD, the Salesian
Communities of Kokopo and Boroko. In conducting the survey I am deeply grateful to
the Billy, Banako, and Ka’akau families, and Christopher Torona in the Autonomous
Region of Bougainville; the Ikalum family, Br. Otto Kaulan, Sam Raralo, and Michael
Rabia in East New Britain; and the Ignatius family, Dominic Lorpo and Ralph Utunga in
West New Britain—and many others, some of whom wished to remain anonymous. I
would also like to acknowledge financial assistance provided by the Commonwealth Schol-
arships Commission.
Please direct all correspondence to Shaun Larcom, Centre for Development, Environ-
ment and Policy,SOA S, University of London, United Kingdom; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 49, Number 1 (2015)
C2015 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
under Section 299 of Papua New Guinea’s Criminal Code Act
2013 labeled Wilful Murder.
Despite being a crime, which can and does attract the high-
parts of Papua New Guinea including the New Guinea Islands.
While there are no data on its prevalence, some believe that it is
more widely accepted and practiced in rural areas, where the
population is considered less sophisticated and the reach of the
post-colonial state is particularly weak.
This view is articulated
by Papua New Guinea’s national newspaper, the Post-Courier
(2010), which stated that payback killers should “leave their ter-
rible ‘customs or culture’ behind in their villages.” Such a state-
ment is consistent with Merry’s (2003: 964) observation that
some post-colonial urban elites tend to portray themselves as
progressive while characterising rural communities as being
“steeped in old cultural practices ... that they are not willing to
While the Papua New Guinean courts once attempted to dis-
tinguish customary motivations from more malevolent ones, they
effectively no longer do. Indeed, the state seems to have taken aim
at customary practices that are contrary to current Western norms,
with the purpose of eradicating them through criminal law. In
addition to the increasingly tough stance taken by the courts
toward payback (see below), parliament has recently increased the
penalties for those convicted of killing alleged sorcerers. In 2013,
parliament passed the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2013 that
applies the death penalty to the new crime of Wilful Murder of a
Person on Account of Accusation of Sorcery (Section 229A) and
repealed the Sorcery Act 2013.
These amendments were partly in
response to some highly publicized killings and pressure from
human rights groups to deter them (Amnesty International 2013).
While the killing of alleged sorcerers differs from payback (which
is akin to retributive homicide),
these recent moves underscore
the state’s increasing tendency to use criminal law to eradicate vio-
lent customary practices and to transform society.
States elsewhere have had various degrees of success in trans-
forming society through criminal law: for instance, the practice of
Tothe best of my knowledge there are no data (either historical or current) on pay-
back killings in Papua New Guinea. This is a longstanding data deficiency (see Trompf
1994). However, they do continue in both rural and urban areas; for instance, see Radio
New Zealand International (2014), Michael (2013), and Kelola (2010).
The Sorcery Act 1974 deemed certain types of sorcery as a crime and widened the
defence of provocation for those who committed homicide motivated by notions of sorcery.
Trompf (1994: 81) makes a distinction between three different types of intentional
homicide in a Melanesian context: “revenge killings” (payback); “executions” (which would
include the sanctioned killing of an alleged sorcerer), and “murder.”
180 Internalizing Legal Norms

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