Papua New Guinea’s famous diversity manifests itself in extraordinarily high levels of normative and legal pluralism. These have posed considerable challenges to efforts to establish a rule of law system along Western lines. Rule of law mechanisms often come into direct contestation with indigenous belief systems and practices and this has been a significant factor behind the limited success of international rule of law support. An exploration of the social complexities of PNG viewed through an historical lens provides the context for arguing that international rule of law assistance needs to take on forms attuned to local realities rather than the pursuit of unrealistic – and often inappropriate – international ideals. In PNG, this necessarily means engagement with a broad spectrum of both state and non-state justice actors. The evolving character of international assistance in PNG in recent years provides some practical clues as to how a more socially attuned engagement might look.