West Papua: The Neglected War?

West Papua, a Melanesian nation bordering the island of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific, has struggled for decades to exercise its right to self-determination and achieve independence from Indonesia. West Papua was first colonized by the Netherlands in 1898. Indonesia was also a Dutch colony until it gained independence in 1949. Upon gaining independence, West Papua was not yet declared part of the Indonesian Republic as the Dutch government saw that the Melanesian nation in waiting was very different – culturally and ethnically. Throughout the 1950s, the Dutch began preparing West Papua for independence. In 1961, the people declared West Papua an independent nation and raised their new flag – the Morning Star. However, this independence was short-lived as the Indonesian government wanted control over former Dutch colonies within the Asia-Pacific region and as a result, invaded West Papua.

According to the 2010/11 West Papua Report by the Asian Human Rights Commission, economic and political interests in West Papua have been the primary cause of human rights abuses by the Indonesian military and state authorities. For example, in August 2010, the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) was launched in the Merauke Regency, Papua Province, to develop a plantation of 1.2 million hectares for cash-crops. This development was not only an exploitation of natural resources in the region but also presented a threat to the economic and cultural rights of the indigenous people of this community who have been suspected of supporting the separatist movement, which supposedly posed a threat to Indonesia’s territorial integrity. To this date, over 500,000 civilians have been brutally murdered and thousands more raped, imprisoned, or tortured at the hands of the Indonesian military and state authorities.

The crisis in West Papua is one that is multifaceted as there are several factors that exacerbate this conflict. First, the Act of Free Choice (1969) was a document reinforced by the United Nations, officially recognizing West Papua as a territory of Indonesia in 1969. This legal document became a barrier from allowing the people of West Papua to exercise their right to self-determination, a right recognized under International Law. In the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, the UN General Assembly highlighted that “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, and is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to world peace and cooperation.” According to the UN Charter and the New York Agreement, Indonesia was only recognized as the administering power and not the original colonial power.

Next, Article 73 of the UN Charter presents Indonesia as a ‘sacred trust’ in bringing West Papua to self-government. The latter sets out Indonesia’s obligation as the administering power to allow for self-determination in West Papua, which must be in accordance with international standards. Although legally binding, the Act of Free Choice is highly controversial to International Law by failing to recognize the people of West Papua’s right to self-determination. Furthermore, Indonesia has failed to uphold its obligations under the above treaties by disallowing self-determination, alienating and carrying out grave human rights violations in West Papua.

Press freedom for foreign media and journalists are highly restricted in West Papua, rendering it difficult to bring light to the situation globally. According to volunteer organization Free West Papua Campaign, BBC journalist Rebecca Henscke and her co-reporters were deported by the Indonesian military in 2018 for supposedly “hurting soldiers’ feelings” when documenting the health crisis in the Asmat region. The international press and journalists have an important duty to document current affairs and present credible information to the international community. Under International Law, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) recognizes the freedom of the press as a human right. Although this document is not legally binding in the same way as treaties, it highlights the standards of behaviour and practice that all states are expected to adhere to. In addition, Article 79 of Protocol I to the Geneva Convention also recognizes journalists as persons protected under the Convention and Protocol in circumstances relating to armed conflicts. Indonesia’s response to the international press is highly concerning and arguably resembles a dictatorship rule despite the Republic’s claims of being a democracy. Furthermore, forbidding the presence of the international press downplays West Papua’s crisis as well as prolongs  the injustice and suffering of its people.

Despite being a democracy, Indonesia’s attitude towards human rights domestically needs to be addressed to help change their attitudes towards the people of West Papua. Currently, the Indonesian Constitution has incorporated a number of principles in the UDHR and has also ratified core treaties underpinning international human rights such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the 2007 ASEAN Charter. Article 2 of the Charter highlights the importance of respecting democratic values and human rights as well as the adherence to international law. Article 14 of this Charter also refers to the ASEAN intergovernmental commission on Human Rights (AICHR) as the body that overlooks and develops the framework for human rights within the region.

According to the 2010/11 West Papua report by the Asian Human Rights Commission, the main criticism for the AICHR is the Commission’s incompetence in carrying out investigations or sanctioning human rights violations. Despite their regional and international obligations, there has been allegations and concerns from the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) about the police forces participation in armed conflict. Moreover, there have been threats to the freedom of religion where all minority communities – Muslim, Christian, Hindus and Buddhists – have been discriminated or attacked. The Indonesian government plays a controversial role by ratifying international treaties relating to human rights but fails to practice it by addressing the discrimination within their borders.

Currently, a number of states within the international community have expressed concern over the crisis in West Papua. On October 4th, 2020, TAPOL (“Political Prisoners”), a human rights campaign in Indonesia, and human rights lawyer Veronica Koman published a very detailed report on the 2019 West Papua Uprising which shed light on the international community’s response to this crisis. According to it, in September 2019, the Pacific Islands Forum and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made several attempts to initiate dialogue with the Indonesian government to address the allegations of human rights violations in West Papua. Countries like New Zealand, Canada, and the UK have also encouraged Indonesia to allow a visit by the UN, but these requests were all denied. Foreign military intervention could arguably be necessary if Indonesia refuses to act. However, under International Law, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is still a topic for debate and is one that should ever be applied in special circumstances only, which West Papua may be eligible for. Moreover, humanitarian intervention also requires lot of political will which most states are not willing to garner unless it aligns with their individual interests.

Overall, alleviating the crisis in West Papua requires a multi-faceted approach. Firstly, challenging the legality of the 1969 Act of Free Choice is necessary in awarding the people of West Papua an opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination and put an end to the past 50 years of injustice. Secondly, the Indonesian government must also be held accountable for their role in the brutal killings and human rights abuses against the people of West Papua. Thirdly, the wider international community must be more active in bringing light to the situation and insist the Indonesian government participate in dialogue as the first step in addressing this issue. Lastly, Indonesia must change its attitude towards human rights within their borders to uphold their international and regional obligations and better reflect the values to which they supposedly adhere to.

Today, the consequences of war are far too great to incur when we are already battling against climate change, poverty, terrorism, and now a global pandemic. The conflict in West Papua requires urgent action from the UN, key actors in the region, and the wider international community. It is important we all share the responsibilities in taking the necessary actions to ensure that West Papua’s right are recognized and protected. It is also important that we all take humanitarian action, not political; we cannot be bystanders to human rights abuses and massacres. The Rwandan genocide is an example of what happens when we do not act.

Pasepa Katia


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