You can’t preach the moral high ground and walk in the gutter: Australia and West Papua

You can’t preach the moral high ground and walk in the gutter: Australia and West Papua Australia, Indonesia, News, Pacific, PNG, Regions, Timor-Leste, West Papua
October 9, 2011

Recurrent themes in Australian politics since the events of 9/11, and the beginning of the euphemistically, though erroneously, named ‘war on terror’ have been national security, border protection and exporting the ‘rule of law’ to the developing nations of the Pacific.

Implied within the concept of the ‘rule of law’ must be the notion of equality before the law.

By equality I don’t mean that nebulous idea continuously sprouted by lawyers to the effect that just because you have been afforded the opportunity to have your say before the dude (please read dude as being gender neutral, but still maintaining all the negative characteristics normally associated with this term) in the white wig you have been given ‘equality before the law’; this is mere lip service to any notion of equality. By equality I mean that all people regardless of race, religion or economic circumstance are treated with the same degree of respect and afforded the same opportunities[i] to present their case, without fear or favour from government interference or judicial corruption, whether by way of ‘forelock tugging’ or the age old brown paper bag under the table trick.

As an Indigenous Australian and one who has suffered the indignities of racial discrimination in both my personal and professional lives I can say that any notion of equality before the law is as abhorrent to the Australian mindset as a boat load of refugees arriving unannounced in Sydney Harbour would be.

Oops, sorry poor analogy, that’s already happened way back in 1788, and haven’t the descendants of Australia’s first refugees made a mess of things for the indigenous peoples of the Asia-Pacific region?

This brings me to the point of this post, Australia’s on-going insistence on ‘tugging the forelock’ whenever Indonesia is mentioned.

If Australia wants to continue being the Deputy Sheriff of the Pacific (albeit with a rusty badge), it has to dispense justice without fear or favour. That includes justice for the people of West Papua as much as it does the people of PNG, the Solomon Islands, Fiji or for that matter Australia’s own indigenous peoples.

West Papua and the notion of equality before the law

Post-Suharto Indonesia has been trying to build an international reputation as a nascent democracy, with its efforts being recognised by the international community via the nation’s re-election in 2007 and again in 2010 to the United Nations Human Rights Council, carrying through until 2014.

However, continuing Indonesian oppression in West Papua[ii] seems to make a mockery of this democratic reform success story and highlights the need to subject Indonesia’s human rights record and credibility to the utmost rigors of critical examination. Such a critical examination is made more difficult by the fact that Indonesia keeps the troubled province of West Papua off limits to foreign journalists and human rights investigators.

The incorporation of West Papua as a province of Indonesia has been contested ever since it occurred in 1963, with West Papua’s fate being sealed in 1969 by a travesty known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’.

This is euphemistically referred to as the ‘Act of No Choice’ by the Papuans, as it was carried out literally at the point of a gun, with only 1022 men being allowed to vote.[iii] 

To this day, West Papua remains heavily militarised due to continued indigenous opposition to Indonesian rule.

Serious human rights abuses are of on-going concern, which have grown in intensity in the post-Suharto years fuelled by Papuan nationalists work with an international solidarity movement aimed at publicising their problems. Some academics argue that the very survival of the West Papuan people is under threat due to the cumulative impacts of poverty, HIV/AIDs, loss of life-sustaining forests and uncontrolled migration.[iv]

It’s a rare occurrence for international journalists to get official approval to visit West Papua meaning that the West Papua story is denied its rightful place in the headlines of the international press. Without these headlines, international public realisation and concern remains low. Even in Australia, there is little awareness that this Melanesian territory shares the island of New Guinea with our near Pacific neighbour, Papua New Guinea.

While international human rights activists have struggled to make the issues confronting the indigenous peoples of West Papua better known, outside of the human rights community it remains difficult if not impossible to wet the appetite of the mainstream media for these issues.

A classic example of this is the case of the Reverend Socrates Sofyan Yoman, head of the Papuan Baptist Churches. When he toured New Zealand in 2006 no New Zealand newspaper took the time to publish an interview with him or to quote his views.

In 2007 in a rare departure from its previous practice and in the lead up to its renomination to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Indonesia allowed two United Nations rapporteurs to visit West Papua. Hina Jilani, the UN Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, and Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

A third rapporteur, Philip Alston, whose brief was extrajudicial killings, was denied permission to visit.

Hina Jilani (United Nations, 2007) highlighted her concerns about the military and police harassment and intimidation of human rights activists. She referred to ‘credible reports’ of arbitrary detention, torture and harassment of those who sought to investigate human rights violations.

Following the visit of the United Nations rapporteurs, Lucy Williamson, a BBC Jakarta correspondent gained a rare permit to visit the Central Highlands in September 2007 to report on the opening of an independent radio network, Newsroom 68H, and an associated hydro-electric dam.

On her return to Jakarta, Williamson gave graphic accounts of underdevelopment, extreme poverty and allegations of human rights abuses.

This is the Indonesia that Australia is happy to call friend and ally, indeed it’s the Indonesia that Australia is habitually ‘tugging the forelock’ to, the Indonesia that is so far from adhering to the concept of the ‘rule of law’ that it is actively engaged in committing genocide against the poorest and most vulnerable of its citizens.

Third National Congress in October, 2011

The Papuan National Collective comprising leaders of the Dewan Adat Papua (the Papuan Customary Council) and leaders of Papuan religious, human rights, women’s, and youth organizations are planning to hold the Third Papuan Congress in Jayapura, on October 16-19, 2011.

The theme of this congress is “Affirming the basic rights of the indigenous Papuan people for the present and the future.”

The agenda for the Third National Congress includes: the protection of fundamental human rights, including the right to self-determination; accountability of security forces for crimes against the civilian population; and protection of the environment. It is expected that the congress will reaffirm the commitment of all Papuans to pursue respect for their rights through peaceful means.

The First Papuan Congress occurred on October 16-19, 1961. At that congress, Papuan leaders declared the desire of the Papuan people to become a free and independent nation. The second congress convened in May 2000 with the support of then Indonesian President Abdul Wahid Rahman. Papuan leaders rejected the 1962 “New York Agreement” which surrendered control of West Papua to Indonesia. The congress also rejected the Act of Free Choice, the fraudulent process that in 1969 denied Papuans their right to self-determination. The congress called on the UN to revoke the November 19, 1969 UN Resolution 2504 which formally recognized Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua.

Recent Human Rights abuses in West Papua

A combined military and police force on August 31 raided civilian homes near Nafri, outside Abepura, where an August 1 assault on a largely civilian convoy killed four and wounded six. The perpetrators of that attack remain unknown, though investigations by local NGOs point to a provocation by the Indonesian military’s notorious Special Forces (Kopassus).

The Nafri attack may have been part of a strategy by security forces to create instability to undermine large scale Papuan demonstrations set for August 2. According to the government, the military/police attack on the civilian homes was in pursuit of Papuans responsible for the Nafri attack.

A report translated by TAPOL provides detail on the late August military and police operation. On 31 August, the homes of four Papuans were targeted by the Army (TNI-AD) and Brimob (special unit of the Indonesian police) supplemented by the police force of Papua; thirteen Papuans were arrested. Local witnesses report that occupants of the four houses were in their homes at the time of the operation and that some of them were asleep. The security forces entered the area where the homes were located and started firing warning shots, which traumatized the local people. Although the thirteen initially evaded the security forces, all of them, including an eight year old girl, were arrested.

Ten, including the eight year old, were subsequently released but two were two detained: Ekimar Kogoya, 22 and Panius Kogoya, 20.

The security forces that conducted the sweep, which appear to have included elements of the notorious Detachment 88, are formally charging the two now being held with involvement in the killings in Nafri on August 1 and say that they are suspected of being members of the TPN/OPM, Papuan resistance groups.

Mathius Murib, deputy chair of the National Human Rights Commission’s (Komnas HAM) Papua branch told media that

“Proper procedures were not followed and the people who were detained were subjected to mal-treatment, and what is even more disturbing is that a child of 7 or 8 years old was kidnapped at the same time.”

The Nafri incident and subsequent “sweeps” follows the standard modus operandi of Indonesian security forces operating in West Papua.

An incident, possibly staged, is used to justify augmenting security forces in an area which then violate local citizens rights with sweeps designed to intimidate the local population. These sweeps usually coincide with periods of growing popular protest over political repression and human rights violations. This modus operandi is part of the Indonesian security force playbook and was regularly witnessed at work in Indonesian-occupied East Timor.

Prominent Human Rights Organizations Call for End to Indonesian Government Resort to Military Measures in West Papua

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), the Indonesian Human Rights Monitor (Imparsial), and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) urged the Indonesian government to reassess its reliance on military measures to address growing dissent in West Papua. The organizations noted in a September 21 statement that their call came amidst growing violence in the region.

WPAT (West Papuan Advocacy Team) notes that security force reliance on extrajudicial killing, arbitrary arrest, torture of detainees and repression of peaceful dissent reflect the reality that Suharto-dictatorship rules and procedures still apply in West Papua.

The four organizations decried the continuing buildup of security forces in West Papua, which Imparsial claimed was in the range of 14,000 personnel and the continuing impunity accorded those forces for their violation of constitutionally protected human rights. They also condemned Government efforts to preclude monitoring of conditions in West Papua by journalists, international human rights monitors and other legitimate observers.

The four organizations called on the Indonesian government to:

  • Instruct its military to immediately cease all unlawful surveillance activities in Papua and revise its current draft intelligence bill by incorporating recommendations by civil society and bringing it into line with the Indonesian Constitution and Criminal Procedure Code, as well as international human rights law;
  • Take steps to reduce the heavy presence of non-organic military personnel and their involvement in civil administration in Papua and seriously implement security sector reform;
  • Fully and credibly investigate all past and new allegations of human rights abuses, especially those perpetrated by state security forces, and promptly bring perpetrators to justice;
  • Strengthen civilian oversight and rigorous parliamentary scrutiny of military policies, operations and budget; and
  • Respect the role of human rights defenders and ensure unfettered access to Papua by civil society groups and actors, including foreign and domestic journalists and independent human rights monitors
The message for Australia is clear, either face up to the reality of the genocide currently underway in West Papua and speak out against it, or stop your moral preaching about taking the ‘rule of law’ to the ‘savages’ of the Pacific and stand up and be counted for what you really are – a gutless, xenophobic neo-colonial exploiter of other people’s problems and resources.



[i] Opportunity in this context would extend to access to affordable and suitably qualified and experienced legal representation, doing away with the argument that “you can only have as much justice as you can afford”.

[ii] In 2001, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid conferred the name ‘Papua’ on the province which had previously been known as Irian Jaya. However, Papuan nationalists and their supporters use ‘West Papua’, the name chosen in 1961 by the New Guinea Council when the Dutch were beginning to prepare the territory for independence.

[iii] Saltford, J. (2003). The United Nations and the Indonesian takeover of West Papua, 1962-1969 London: Routledge Curzon.

[iv] Wing, J and King, P. (2005).Genocide in West Papua? A Report for the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney and ELSHAM, Jayapura, Papua August 2005.

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  1. Bill Wheatlet says:

    Julia Gillard you can’t keep claiming to be the powerhouse behind nation building in the Pacific and continue to ignore the plight of the west Papuans. They are people and they have rights and Australia has an obligation to help protect their rights and respect them as valued members of the human family. Either rise up to the occasion or stop the pretence of Australia being a geed neighbour in the Pacific.

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