Exiled West Papua independence figure Benny Wenda handed over the petition on behalf of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) on 26 September. Photo by Benny Wenda.


Unless Indonesia addresses the failure of the social integration of Papua into Indonesia, the issue of Papua will end up at the United Nations. This was the warning given on 28 September to an audience of senior policy makers and academics by Bambang Dharmono, the former head of the Yudhoyono-era Unit for the Accelerated Development of Papua and West Papua (UP4B). The retired major general may not have known that two days earlier, Benny Wenda, on behalf of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), had handed a petition to the UN signed by 1.8 million Papuans and Indonesian settlers.


Dharmono’s critique of government policies in Papua was consistent with the analysis in the Indonesian Institute of Science’s (LIPI) revised “Papua Road Map”.  LIPI noted that Papua-based and diasporic resistance groups have become stronger and better coordinated in their struggle for a referendum and independence.


Since its establishment in 2015, the ULMWP has gained legitimacy as the representative of many pro-independence Papuans. Partly because of its lobbying, the issue of Papua has been frequently raised at regional meetings in the Pacific and at the UN.


The ULMWP petition read:

We call on you to urgently address the human rights situation in West Papua and to review the UN’s involvement in the administration of West Papua that led to its unlawful annexation by Indonesia – and the human rights abuse that continues today. We call upon you to: – appoint a Special Representative to investigate the human rights situation in West Papua; – put West Papua back on the Decolonisation Committee agenda and ensure our right to self‐determination – denied to us in 1969 – is respected by holding an Internationally Supervised Vote (in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolutions 1514 and 1541 (XV).


There is nothing new in the issues raised by this petition. Self-determination and human rights abuses have long been the key issues of Papuan international lobbying. The demand for self-determination rests on pro-independence Papuans’ interpretation of Papua’s integration into Indonesia during the 1960s. They claim this was illegitimate as Papuans were excluded from the negotiations.


The Papuan arguments about the history of integration are as well-established as the opposing arguments of the Indonesian government. These arguments are central to how Papuans think about the conflict and they provide much of the motivation for their struggle. However, it is the continuing reports of human rights abuses that resonate in international forums.


These reports highlight the securitisation of governance and failure to integrate Papuans into the Indonesian state. The importance of this petition is that it is the first occasion the ULMWP has attempted to provide physical evidence of popular support in Papua for its demand for self-determination and its allegations of human rights abuses.


The ULMWP claimed that the petition was signed by 1,804,421 people of a population of 3,612,854. How this number of signatures could be assembled under the watchful eyes of the Indonesian authorities invites some scepticism about the numbers.


But leaving aside the veracity of the numbers, one of the objectives of the petition was to distinguish itself, as an expression of popular opinion, from the 1969 Act of Free Choice, in which 1,026 government-selected Papuans voted unanimously for incorporation in Indonesia. It is as if the ULMWP petition was asking the UN to rectify its mistake in 1969, by giving Papuans a(nother) vote.


The number of indigenous signatories represents 70.9 per cent of the indigenous population of West Papua. However, the number of settler signatures claimed – 96,254 – represents a much smaller portion of the total number of settlers, which is 1,203,184. Given the difficult position of the settler communities in the Papua conflict, caught between the Indonesian government and the pro-independence Papuans, it is significant that the ULMWP collected any settler signatures at all.


Nevertheless, it raises the question of whether, in the eyes of pro-independence Papuans, settlers share in Papua’s right of self-determination. If there were ever to be an “internationally supervised vote” would the non-Papuan residents, most of who have settled in Papua under Indonesian administration, have a vote?


As the LIPI analysis noted, the issue of Papua had been frequently raised at the UN in recent years. It was the numerous speeches of Pacific Island leaders in the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council that paved the way for the presentation of the ULMWP petition. The Pacific Island leaders’ speeches have given pro-independence Papuans the voice at the UN they had previously lacked. These speeches have been an extension of pro-independence Papuan lobbying in the Pacific, focused on the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and Pacific Island Forum (PIF).


Indonesian diplomacy has been effective in blocking formal support from the two regional organisations for the ULMWP, but that has not prevented some Pacific Island leaders from raising the Papua issue at the UN. Given the lack of consensus about Papua in the MSG and PIF, both Papuan activists and sympathetic Pacific leaders realise that the issues can only be resolved at the UN.


It is unclear whether the ULMWP petition will open the way to further consideration of the Papua issue at the UN. Rafael Ramírez, Venezuelan diplomat and the chair of the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonisation, explained that Papua was not an issue for the committee as its mandate only extended to the 17 regions identified by the UN as “non-self-governing territories”. These do not include Papua.


Also, it is a principle of the UN to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its members, including Indonesia. Indonesia is a member and its permanent representative to the UN, Dian Triansyah Djani, is the vice-chair of the Committee, so it is in a strong position to thwart the ULMWP’s objective to have Papua added to the list of non-self-governing territories.


Indonesia’s responses to the speeches of Pacific Island leaders have been less effective. In the General Assembly sessions in 2016 and 2017, Indonesia exercised its right of reply to refute the accusations of human rights abuses made by Pacific Island leaders. In both years, articulate young diplomats have accused the Pacific Island leaders of violating the UN Charter and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Indonesia. Indonesia claimed Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands had been deceived by individuals with separatist agendas and were using the Papua issue to divert attention from their own domestic problems.


On 25 September, Ainan Nuran, the 3rd Secretary in the Indonesian mission to the UN, observed that with modern technology, people would know if abuses had really occurred. This is the crux of the problem for Indonesia now – for all the restrictions on press freedom and access for foreign correspondents , information about abuses in Papua still manages to reach the outside world.


Indonesian diplomat Ainan Nuran responding to statements made by Pacific Island leaders. Image by UN.


Freddy Numberi, a former minister and former governor of Papua, observed in December 2016 that because human rights abuses had not been addressed effectively they had become the means to internationalise the issue of Papua. In May 2106, then Coordinating Minister for Legal, Political and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan announced that the government would establish a team to investigate five cases of human rights abuses. Unfortunately, Papuan human rights activist Mathius Murib, who agreed to cooperate with Luhut’s team, reported recently that no significant progress had been made.


The credibility of Indonesian diplomats’ presentations at the UN is undermined by continuing reports of human rights abuses by the security forces and by the inability or unwillingness of the Indonesian authorities to address past abuses.


While they might be popular at home, the presentations to the General Assembly of articulate young Indonesian diplomats like Nuran are no substitute for undertaking the much more difficult task of reforming the institutional culture of violence in the security forces and winding back the securitisation of Indonesian governance in Papua.


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