Accepted paper:

The perfectible court in an imperfect state


Melissa Demian (University of St Andrews)

Paper short abstract:

Papua New Guinea’s village courts provide a test case in the way agendas of self-surveillance and self-improvement operate within a state that is unable to deliver either oversight or support for its own legal instruments.

Paper long abstract:

Papua New Guinea is consistently painted as one of the 'sick men' of the Pacific or of the Commonwealth, and is frequently subject to the rhetoric of the failed state. Large-scale measurements of success in the building of a functioning civil society, such as the Millennium Development Goals, would seem to bear out this diagnosis. But closer scrutiny of one of its longer-running experiments in cultivating the 'rule of law' complicates the picture somewhat. The Village Courts system in Papua New Guinea has run with little or no state oversight since its inception in 1975. There is some concern among metropolitan elites that the Village Courts have either outlived their usefulness, or are 'broken' because they are well known to stray from their proper jurisdiction. In this paper, I draw on recent research in the Village Courts system to ask how the courts inform a Papua New Guinean legal subjectivity that both references, and is independent from, state interventions. For Papua New Guineans do imagine themselves as legal actors, and they do so in a wide variety of ways, including the widespread notion that to act lawfully is inextricable from acting as a Christian, part of the package of Papua New Guinean modernity that informs the aspirations particularly of younger people. Each of these subject positions holds out the prospect of participation in a wider legal ecumene that is imagined to bring about 'development', or a perfected state of social harmony and wealth that seems perpetually out of reach.

panel P32
Perfection: histories, technologies, cosmologies