An Indonesian human rights court has begun a trial to determine whether a former army commander is guilty of crimes against humanity in West Papua. This represents an opportunity to ensure that the rights of West Papuans are protected from state violence and racial discrimination.
The trial, in Indonesia’s rarely used human rights court, began on 21 September 2022. However, the trial is not being held in West Papua, where the events took place, but in Makassar, a city over 1,400km away, on the island of Sulawesi. This presents a barrier for witnesses and the families of the victims to attend the trial.
Indonesia’s human rights court was established under Law No. 26 in 2000. Under this legislation, the court has the “duty and authority” to examine and decide cases of gross human rights violations, specifically genocide and crimes against humanity. Since its inception, however, the court has rarely been used.
Isak Sattu, a retired Major in the Indonesian military, is charged with crimes against humanity. On 8 December 2014, in Paniai Regency, West Papua, the Indonesian military fired on a crowd of approximately 800 protesters for up to seven minutes in the town of Enarotali, resulting in the deaths of five people, including four teenagers, Simon Degei, Otianus Gobai, Alfius Youw and Yuilian Yeimo. The gunfire also wounded between 17 and 21 others. The initial protest was in response to an attack by Indonesian authorities on Yulian Yeimo on 7 December 2014. Before the gunshots, it was reported to be a peaceful protest in the town square of Enarotali in front of the Indonesian military command office.
The prosecutor of the trial released a statement outlining the charges against Sattu, arguing that the troops under his command “committed serious human rights violations by inaugurating a wide and systematic attack” and that “the defendant did not take appropriate and necessary actions within the scope of his power to prevent or stop the crimes.”
If convicted, Sattu would face up to 25 years in prison.
After the killings, President Joko Widodo promised to conduct an investigation into the events. However, the Indonesian military, who undertook the investigation, denied that troops fired on protesters and instead, without evidence, blamed West Papuan independence fighters.
While the motivation for the timing of the trial is unclear, it has been welcomed by independence and human rights activists as a positive step in bringing Indonesian authorities to justice for crimes committed against West Papuans. Still, others are skeptical. Many witnesses and family members of the victims are questioning why only one suspect has been brought to trial, and some are even refusing to attend the hearing altogether. They believe that the Indonesian judicial system is stacked against them.
Indonesia’s justice system lacks the transparency and independence to adequately hold offenders to account. This is because the system divides military and civilian jurisdiction for alleged crimes. Under the 1997 Military Tribunal Law, soldiers on trial must appear before a military tribunal, often resulting in the military resisting or preventing investigations and prosecutions.
This points to a larger problem in the treatment of West Papuans under Indonesian rule.
The Indonesian military has been documented committing numerous cases of human rights abuses in West Papua, including torture and extrajudicial killings. West Papuans continue to experience excessive use of force and racist violence from the military and police, limiting their access to the justice system. Indonesian authorities frequently arrest, detain, and prosecute West Papuan protesters. These crimes are almost never prosecuted, let alone investigated.
Between July and August 2022, Indonesian authorities used excessive force, water canons and batons, and racially abused protesters peacefully opposing the Papuan Special Autonomy Law. On 16 August 2022, police fired on protesters in Yahukimo Regency, injuring one, with water cannons and beatings reported on the same day at another protest in Jayapura. Amnesty International reports that authorities used discriminatory, excessive force in response to these protests.
Under international law, it is legal for authorities to use intentional lethal use of firearms only when it is necessary to protect life and only after all other measures are exhausted.
The protests in West Papua are organized for legitimate concerns with racism, state violence, and autonomy. These protests are overwhelmingly peaceful. It is vital, then, that West Papuans are treated as per the guidelines of fundamental human rights under international and domestic law.
West Papuans have a right to freedom of assembly and association under articles 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 8 (1)(a) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Furthermore, the right to freedom of assembly and expression is guaranteed under the Indonesian Constitution and article 24 (1) of Law No. 39 of 1999 on Human Rights.
The Indonesian government, which is a signatory to the above conventions, needs to adhere to its obligations and respect the human rights of its citizens. This includes allowing peaceful protests and ending the arrest, detention, and abuse of protesters. The use of force by authorities, and any resulting injuries or fatalities, should be punished according to Indonesian law without fear or favour.
The government also needs to protect West Papuans from racially motivated attacks and discrimination from authorities, including the military, police, and judges. Indonesia prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity in civil, political, economic, social, and cultural life under Law No. 40 of 2008. The government, therefore, needs to adhere to its own legislation and ensure that the rights of West Papuans are protected under law.
Finally, the government should open West Papua to international human rights monitors and organizations to allow for investigations of past and current abuses. This will increase transparency in a remote region, where authorities continue to act with impunity.
While the trial of Isak Sattu offers hope to West Papuans that justice might be served for prior crimes, it equally represents the fundamental problems West Papuans face in accessing justice and enjoying their human rights.
After years of discrimination and state violence, West Papuans no longer trust the judicial system. This will only be rectified if the Indonesian government respects the human rights of all its citizens, including West Papuans, as per international and domestic law. Only then will West Papuans receive the justice they deserve.