West Papua, a Melanesian island bordering Papua New Guinea in the Pacific, has struggled for decades to achieve independence. First colonized by the Netherlands in 1898, the island was still a colony when Indonesia became independent in 1949. The Dutch government refused to declare West Papua part of the Melanesian Republic, recognizing cultural and ethnic differences between the island and its other former colony, and in the 1950’s 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. The Indonesian government invaded West Papua within the decade.
Indonesia not been kind to West Papua. To date, over 500,000 civilians have been brutally murdered, and thousands more were raped, imprisoned, or tortured, at the hands of the Indonesian military and state authorities.
According to the Asian Human Rights Commission’s 2010/11 West Papua Report, economic and political interests in West Papua have been the primary cause of these human rights abuses. In August 2010, for example, Indonesia launched the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) in Papua Province’s Merauke Regency to develop a plantation of 1.2 million hectares for cash crops. This development not only threatened the economic and cultural rights of West Papua’s indigenous community, but also exploited the region’s natural resources. In general, indigenous West Papuans are more likely to suffer these injustices. Indigenous peoples are suspected of supporting the separatist movement, which supposedly poses a threat to Indonesia’s territorial integrity.
Moreover, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist minority groups have faced threats to their religious freedom. Many have experienced discrimination or been attacked. Indonesia has done little to stop this.
Even as Indonesia fails to address discrimination within its own borders, it ratifies human rights treaties internationally. The Indonesian Constitution has incorporated a number of principles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has ratified core treaties underpinning those rights internationally, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s 2007 Charter. However, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, the body which oversees this charter, has criticized Indonesia for failing to sanction human rights violations or carry out investigations into the same. The U.N. Committee Against Torture has expressed concern with Indonesian police forces’ participation in armed conflict. The country must address these concerns to prove its government genuinely cares about meeting its regional and international obligations.
Several factors exacerbate West Papua’s conflict. The United Nations, for one, officially recognized West Papua as Indonesia’s territory with the Act of Free Choice in 1969. This legal document became a barrier to West Papua’s right to self-determination, a right recognized under international law. Although legally binding, the Act’s failure to recognize West Papua’s right to self-determination is highly controversial. In the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, the U.N. General Assembly stated 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.” Choosing to reinforce the Act of Free Choice, a legal document, at the expense of the people of West Papua means that the U.N. has failed to uphold this Declaration.
Furthermore, Article 73 of the U.N. Charter presents Indonesia as a “sacred trust” in bringing West Papua to self-government. The article sets out Indonesia’s obligation as the administering power, not the original colonial power, to allow for self-determination in West Papua. This must be in accordance with international standards. Even if the Act of Free Choice is considered authoritative, Indonesia has failed its obligations under Article 73 by disallowing self-determination, alienating the people, and committing grave human rights violations.
It is difficult to bring light to West Papua’s situation globally. Press freedoms for foreign media and journalists on the island are highly restricted. According to volunteer organization the Free West Papua Campaign, the Indonesian military deported BBC journalist Rebecca Henscke and her fellow reporters in 2018 for “hurting soldiers’ feelings” when documenting a health crisis in West Papua’s remote Asmat region. (Activists claim mismanagement and neglect from Indonesia worsened measles outbreaks and malnutrition.) The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the freedom of the press as a human right under international law. Article 79 of Protocol I to the Geneva Convention also recognizes journalists as persons protected under the Convention. Indonesia’s failure to adhere to these international standards of treatment is highly concerning, arguably resembling a dictatorship despite the Republic’s claims of democracy. Furthermore, forbidding the presence of the international press downplays West Papua’s crisis, prolonging the island’s injustice and suffering.
Several international actors have expressed concern over the crisis in West Papua. On October 4th, 2020, human rights lawyer Veronica Koman published a very detailed report on the 2019 West Papua Uprising in conjunction with Indonesian human rights campaign TAPOL. (The name comes from the Indonesian words for “political prisoners,” tahanan politik.) The report shed light on the international community’s response to the crisis. According to Koman, the Pacific Islands Forum and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made several attempts in September 2019 to initiate dialogue with the Indonesian government to address the allegations of human rights violations in West Papua, to little avail. Countries like New Zealand, Canada, and the U.K. have encouraged Indonesia to allow a visit by the U.N., but these requests were all denied.
Foreign military intervention could arguably be necessary if Indonesia refuses to act. However, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is still a topic for debate under international law, and international military response should be reserved only for special circumstances. West Papua may be eligible for those circumstances. However, humanitarian intervention also requires a lot of political will, which most states are not able to garner unless it aligns with their individual interests. Even if that will is gathered, we cannot risk a war. The consequences would be far too great to incur when we are already battling against climate change, poverty, terrorism, and now a global pandemic.
Overall, alleviating the crisis in West Papua requires a multi-faceted approach. The legality of the 1969 Act of Free Choice must be challenged to put an end to the past 50 years of injustice and allow West Papua an opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination. Second, the Indonesian government must be held accountable for their role in the brutal killings and human rights abuses against the people of West Papua. Third, the wider international community must be more active in bringing light to the situation. We must insist that 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.
West Papua’s conflict requires urgent action from the U.N., key actors in the region, and the wider international community. We all share the responsibility to take that action, to ensure that West Papua’s rights are recognized and protected. We cannot be bystanders to human rights abuses and massacre. The Rwandan genocide proves what happens when we do not act.