Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Self-determination or territorial integrity?

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Nic Maclellan

For decades, human rights abuses in West Papua have received attention from advocacy groups, while environmental organisations have lobbied over pollution from the Freeport mine. But in the wake of Suharto's fall, the 1999 Timor crisis and growing tensions in Maluku and Aceh, there is increasing international concern over West Papua, as the crisis forces itself onto the regional and international agenda.

Most governments have dropped their mantra that West Papua's independence movement is irrelevant and lacks popular support. Now, they express concern over human rights abuses by the Indonesian military in West Papua, while stressing their support for Indonesia's territorial integrity. Growing international attention has been given to the call for West Papuan self-determination, but it has been overshadowed by a focus on the impact that independence will have on Indonesia's democratic transformation.

Pacific links

Many commentators view the current crisis in West Papua through the prism of Indonesian unity, ignoring historic ties that bind West Papuans to Melanesia and the Pacific islands. Neighbouring governments in Australia and Papua New Guinea have repeatedly asserted that West Papua is historically part of Indonesia (concerned as refugees again spill over the border into Papua New Guinea). Japan, Asean and the European Union (EU) have spoken against 'secession' in Aceh and West Papua. Even Timor's new leaders have also suggested caution rather than rushing to political independence.

However, the clear mood in the Pacific islands is that historically, culturally and geographically, West Papua has always been part of Melanesia and the wider Pacific region. Even under Dutch administration, West Papuans were active in regional Pacific meetings, before Indonesia's take-over in the 1960s severed links with other island peoples. West Papuans participated in the founding of key regional bodies. In 1950, Pacific island delegates came together in Suva, Fiji for the first South Pacific Conference. West Papuan leaders Marcus Kaisiepo and Nicolas Jouwe from the colony of Dutch New Guinea joined fellow Pacific Island delegates at this important regional meeting of the newly formed South Pacific Commission. Photographs from the time show Kaisiepo seated beside Ratu Sir Edward Cakobau of Fiji, Albert Henry of the Cook Islands and Prince Tu'ipelehake of the Kingdom of Tonga.

In the 1960s, West Papuans were studying at the Fiji School of Medicine and the Pacific Theological College in Suva. Pacific churches worked together to found the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) after the Malua Conference of Churches and Missions in Samoa in 1961. At this founding meeting, a church delegation came from Dutch New Guinea, with Reverend Kabel and Reverend Maloali of the Evangelical Christian Church joining fellow Christians from around the region to establish the regional ecumenical body. West Papuan exiles have played a vital role in government, education and civil society in Papua New Guinea since they left their homeland in the late 1960s.

Today, these links are being recreated. Some Pacific island governments are providing increased support for West Papua's quest for independence. At the September 2000 United Nations Millennium Summit in New York, leaders from Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu raised the West Papuan issue - the first countries to declare support for West Papuan independence at the UN. Four West Papuan leaders were given official delegate status at the 31st Pacific Islands Forum in October 2000 as members of the Nauru delegation. At the Forum, Vanuatu, Nauru and other countries supported the push for human rights in the troubled country, even as they deferred to Australian and PNG sensitivities by acknowledging Indonesia's current political sovereignty. The Forum governments issued an unprecedented statement calling for peaceful dialogue on the future of the country, and an end to human rights abuses.

West Papuan Presidium member Franzalbert Joku welcomed the statement: 'After four decades, we are back in our natural habitat, the South Pacific.'

Jakarta's proposal for a Western Pacific Forum, to be discussed in June 2001, seems to be in part a tactical response to the islands' initiative. The next Pacific Islands Forum will be held in Nauru in August 2001, ensuring that West Papua will remain on the agenda. West Papuan leaders have welcomed the Forum's April 2001 decision to accept Indonesia as a post-Forum 'dialogue partner', as they are seeking international support for a peaceful dialogue with the Indonesian government.

UN review

Mobilisation on the ground in West Papua is being supported by international diplomatic efforts. Many Presidium Dewan Papua leaders regard the December 1961 flag-raising as a valid declaration of independence from the Netherlands. They are seeking international support for a review of the so-called Act of Free Choice in 1969, arguing that this vote was deeply compromised, and cannot be regarded as a true act of self-determination. Scholars in Europe and the UK are researching the Dutch and UN role in this vote (see article by Richard Chauvel in this issue).

United Nations General Assembly resolution 2504 (XXIV) of 19 November 1969 'took note' of the report of Special Rapporteur Ortiz Sanz about the Act of Free Choice, without formally endorsing it. West Papuans are now calling on the international community to review the UN resolution. They are gaining some support amongst Pacific Island Forum members. Only three island nations were independent of their colonial powers at the time of Indonesia's annexation in 1969 and decolonisation issues strike an emotional chord with Pacific peoples (especially as French, British and US colonies in the Pacific - such as Guam, New Caledonia and American Samoa - are still listed with the UN Decolonisation Committee).

Even though most governments shy away from the issue of West Papuan self-determination, there is a significant focus on human rights abuses by the Indonesian armed forces. While supporting Indonesia's territorial integrity, a November 2000 statement from the EU presidency 'encourages the Indonesian authorities' efforts to find a solution to regional disputes through dialogue rather than by force'. At government level, Indonesia's stability and human rights issues are a focus of inter-regional meetings (for example, an EU-Australia ministerial meeting in Stockholm on 2 February 2001 agreed to work together to support Indonesia's efforts to ensure 'peace and stability in its backyard'.)

In 2000, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited Indonesia, expressing her concerns about human rights violations in West Papua. She reaffirmed the need for peaceful dialogue when she met with West Papuan human rights advocates during the April 2001 session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The former Irish president committed herself to working to improve the situation, reflecting awareness and support in Ireland for the West Papuan issue. At the UN human rights session, the Netherlands and the EU made statements, stressing the need for a genuine dialogue between Jakarta and the Papuans.

For many years, international lobbying on West Papua was conducted by exiled members of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM). This has now been supplemented by members of the Presidium Dewan Papua, and other church and NGO activists. Early in 2001, John Rumbiak of the West Papuan Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy (Elsham) travelled in North America and Europe to lobby on human rights issues. His visit to Canada was the first time a West Papuan human rights expert had toured the country, giving talks to the public and university students and meeting with government and NGOs. The newly formed West Papua Action Network (Wespan) plans to continue lobbying on behalf of human rights and self-determination and establishing an ongoing network of supporters.

On 2 April 2001, Rumbiak intervened in the plenary session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on behalf of the World Council of Churches. He highlighted the worsening human rights situation in West Papua as the result of repressive measures adopted by Indonesia in response to the West Papuan demand to exercise their right of self-determination.


The Wahid government has been under increased pressure inside and outside Indonesia to investigate such human rights abuses. In the face of police intransigence, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has been conducting an inquiry into the Abepura incident on 7 December 2000, in which police raided student dormitories, with three deaths and many detained and tortured. Wahid supported autonomy for Papua at the beginning of his presidency, but this support fell victim to growing elite resistance in Jakarta to Wahid's policies. Proposals from West Papuan intellectuals and officials for a new autonomy deal are currently under consideration in Jakarta, but may falter because of concern over 'separatism' (Maluku is also partly Melanesian, and pro-Melanesian sentiment could spread).

While domestic Indonesian politics will have an important impact on West Papua, international opinion on human rights is setting the context for Jakarta's next moves. Australia remains a key player, especially as the incoming Bush Administration has welcomed its leading role in Timor in 1999. However for more than twenty years, Australia was one of few countries to give de jure recognition to Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, only changing policy after the massacres committed by military-backed militias. There is a growing clamour for a similar policy change on West Papua, with Australian public opinion deeply shocked by events in Timor.

Since 1999, there has been increased attention on West Papua in the Australian media. Small West Papua solidarity committees are active in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra, building awareness in broader church, trade union and human rights circles. Members of Parliament in the Federal and New South Wales Parliaments have joined committees in support of West Papuan rights. In October 2000, the Australian Council for Trade Unions (ACTU) signed a pledge of support for West Papuan human rights. Ironically, Jakarta blames Australian NGOs for agitating on West Papuan independence, although the issue of self-determination is a sensitive one for many NGOs which run development programs in Indonesia and see West Papua as part of Asia rather than the Pacific.

With the Australian Labor Party likely to win government in national elections in late 2001, the role of the labour movement will be crucial in influencing government policy. In Australia, both major parties maintain a position in support of Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, but the issue is taking on increasing importance for civil society groups around the country.

The fortieth anniversary of the December 1961 declaration will be a focal point around the world. It will serve to sharpen the international community's dilemma of whether to work for Indonesian territorial integrity with human rights, or for Papuan self-determination.

Nic Maclellan (nicmaclellan@optushome.com.au) worked with the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre (PCRC) in Suva, Fiji between 1997-2000.

Inside Indonesia 67: Jul - Sep 2001

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