If insanity, as the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then the Indonesian government’s approach to Papua is a textbook example. Demands for self-determination, anger at racial abuse, dissatisfaction with special autonomy — no matter the problem, the only solution Jakarta seems to be able to come up with is “send more troops”.
Instead of reflecting on why repeated crackdowns have done little to end violence in the Papuan provinces, Jakarta has doubled down on its security approach by designating armed groups in Papua as “terrorist organisations”.
The most recent escalation of violence, which culminated in the murder of Papua regional intelligence chief Brigadier General I Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha, in a shootout with an armed group affiliated with the Free Papua Movement (OPM), has only caused the government to dig in further.
On 29 April, Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD announced that “organisations and people in Papua who commit massive violence can be classified as terrorists”, without mentioning the OPM by name. However, in official National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) documents seen by Amnesty International, the agency specifically refers to its plan to designate OPM and affiliated groups as terrorist organisations.
There are several reasons why this decision has been widely criticised by religious leaders, policy experts, and human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
First of all, the terrorist label allows the government to broaden its security approach, which has already seen grave violations of human rights by security forces and will likely further embed a culture of impunity for state violations of rights. This approach will fuel the cycle of violence that has claimed the lives of many ordinary people, from schoolchildren to pastors.
The local population has repeatedly claimed that ordinary people have been killed by security forces, with no recourse to justice. According to Amnesty International’s monitoring, military and police personnel often justify the killing of Papuan residents by claiming that they were members of the OPM or ‘armed criminal groups’ without any clear evidence – claims that are often denied by local residents and church leaders. There are real concerns that the “terrorist” designation will be used to justify such terrible human rights violations.
Opposing vague and imprecise “terrorism” laws that allow the government to violate the rights of civilians is not the same as condoning violence by armed groups. In all instances of violence against civilians, Amnesty International calls for the investigation, arrest and prosecution of all those suspected of such crimes, including by members of armed groups.
Authorities should conduct a swift, thorough, impartial and independent investigation into such crimes and ensure that those responsible are brought to trial according to prevailing law and international human rights standards. The terrorist label will do nothing to protect the victims of armed groups and will only facilitate potential violations by state security forces.
There are many examples from other countries where counterterrorism efforts have been used to justify systematic human rights violations, including in India, France, Spain, Switzerland, Poland, Chile, and Egypt. Counterterrorism provisions in laws and policies in these countries are too broad. They lack clear boundaries in determining the status of “terrorists” and fail tests of legality and necessity in their infringement of protected human rights. They are also discriminatory and easily misused to arrest those who have different views from the government. Amnesty International has raised similar objections to Indonesia’s own anti-terrorism law, which was revised in 2018.
Secondly, the “terrorist” label will further limit freedom of expression and assembly of Papuans. Even before the terrorist designation, Papuans have too often suffered undue restrictions on the exercise of their freedom of expression, including unjustifiable criminalisation. Those who peacefully express political opinions in line with those of the OPM – even those not necessarily affiliated with OPM – are at risk of being accused of “terrorism” offences.
This will only exacerbate problems that existed before the terrorist designation. According to Amnesty International data, there are at least 31 prisoners of conscience in Papua and West Papua who have been convicted of treason merely for peacefully expressing their political opinions.
Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the government’s decision to designate OPM and its affiliates as terrorist organisations is that it is the latest in a long line of sidesteps and evasions that seem to show that Jakarta is willing to do just about anything other than actually address the grievances so often repeated by the Papuan people.
These grievances are not new, nor are they secret – even civil society leaders close to President Joko Widodo’s administration have repeatedly implored the government to grapple with the racial abuse, marginalisation, exploitation of resources, and impunity that has existed in Papua for decades.
These abuses continue. From February 2018 to December 2020, there were at least 47 cases of suspected unlawful killings by security forces, with 80 victims. In 2021 alone, there have been at least six victims of alleged unlawful killings by security forces in six separate incidents. Of these 53 cases, not one has resulted in a conviction in civilian or military courts. In fact, only four have been processed legally at all: three cases involving military personnel are currently being investigated by military prosecutors, while one case has been handed over to the district prosecutor’s office.
The government has said little about these killings, only commenting on certain specific cases and has done nothing to address failures in the system that have led to them.
In a recent discussion hosted by Amnesty International and several other rights groups, prominent Catholic leader Romo Franz Magnis said that peace could only be achieved if past human rights violations were thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.
“There needs to a dialogue with Papuans so that [the government] knows what they are hoping for,” he said. “This cannot happen with the terrorist designation, because terrorists have to be chased down and this will only result in more victims.”
This plea, and others like it, seem to always fall on deaf ears. The government should listen before more lives are lost.