West Papua – the world’s forgotten injustice

Alex Sobel writes on the ongoing military occupation and its gross human rights abuses.

April 8, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo via the Free West Papua campaign

We think we know all about the great injustices of the world. The people who have been killed, who have had their human rights transgressed, who have been illegally imprisoned, and have seen their calls for a right to Self-Determination unanswered. We might be familiar with the situations faced by the peoples of Kurdistan, Western Sahara, Kashmir, Tibet and Palestine. However much less is spoken of West Papua even though the International Headquarters of the Campaign to fight for against Human Rights abuses and self-determination is based right here in the UK.

West Papua is the Western half of the Island of New Guinea off the North coast of Australia sharing the Island with Papua New Guinea which achieved its Independence from Australia in 1975. However the Western part of the Island which was a Dutch Colony is under occupation by the Indonesian State. The indigenous people of the Island of New Guinea are Papuans of Melanesian descent, quite distinct from the majority of Indonesians.  

The History of the Struggle for West Papua

There was a chance for Independence as the Dutch prepared for de-colonisation after the Second World War they included West Papua in these plans. West Papua held a Congress at which its people declared independence, and raised their new flag – the Morning Star in 1961.

However Indonesia which had been Independent since 1950 wanted all of the former Dutch colonies in the Asia-Pacific region and the Indonesian military invaded West Papua. As it was the Cold War the Indonesians unable to secure enough support for its invasion of West Papua went to the Soviet Union for help. The US government was worried that Indonesia seeking Soviet support might increase the spread of communism in the Pacific. In a letter from John F Kennedy to the Dutch Prime Minister, the US government strongly urged the Dutch government to hand over West Papua to Indonesia, in an attempt to appease the Sukarno government. The US government managed to engineer a meeting between Indonesia and the Netherlands resulting in the New York Agreement, which in 1962 gave control of West Papua to the United Nations and one year later transferred administrative control to Indonesia.  The Papuans were never consulted on this decision. However, the agreement did promise them their right to self determination – a right which is guaranteed by the UN to all people in the world. The Indonesians used the next 7 years to gain control over all aspects of West Papuan life and in 1969 the promised plebiscite on Independence came. However rather than a vote of all people in West Papua the Indonesian military hand-picked just 1,026 ‘representative’ people who voted under duress and West Papua became a province of Indonesia.

Military Occupation and Human Rights

In the 50 years of Indonesian Control there is significant evidence of Genocide and Yale Law School in a report for the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign in 2004 found “in the available evidence a strong indication that the Indonesian government has committed genocide against the West Papuans”. The Indonesian Military have also carried out widespread acts of Torture and Sexual Assault against the native Papuans. Every week those protesting for their rights are imprisoned by the Military. You may now be asking yourself why haven’t I heard about this, why isn’t this on the news? Well reporting is banned, Journalists cannot travel to West Papua and Journalists that have tried have been expelled. In February 2018 the BBC sent a Journalist to cover the Measles and Malnutrition Crisis that engulfed West Papua was expelled by the Military before she could even file a report. Without any reporting the plight of the West Papuans needs to be carried by word of mouth and Social Media.

Economy and Environment

West Papua is rich with natural resources it has the world’s largest Gold Mine and second largest Copper Mine. West Papua has also seen mass deforestation with the native trees being replaced by Palms for Palm Oil production. West Papuans are being exploited for their labour, land and their Island is being destroyed by pollution of the land and rivers.

However the West Papuan people sat in the midst of all these resources are some of the poorest people in Asia.

How are the West Papuans campaigning for Self-Determination

The people of West Papua have been campaigning since 1969 and many have had to flea and campaign from their new homes. A United Campaign representing all those in the West Papuan diaspora and in West Papua. The United Liberation Movement for West Papua was formed in 2014 bringing together all the Liberation Organisations together. The Free West Papua Campaign is based in the UK and supports the All Party Parliamentary Group on West Papua which I chair. Benny Wenda who lives in Oxford is the Chair of the Free West Papua Campaign and also The United Liberation Movement for West Papua. The bringing together of the organisations has led to two major steps forward recently, the first is the signing of the Westminster Declaration which calls for an Internationally Supervised Vote for Independence and was signed on 2016 by representatives of Governments of 4 Pacific States and Parliamentarians from around the world, since then other Parliamentarians including me have signed up to the Declaration. The West Papuans in secret and often in fear of discovery collected a petition in West Papua calling for an internationally supervises vote for Independence was signed by 1.8 million, Benny Wenda has presented the petition to the UN but was rebuffed after pressure from the Indonesian Government who sit on the UN Decolonisation Committee, how Colonising Nations can be on a Decolonisation Committee is a travesty in itself. If you want to find out more and take action for West Papua please go to https://www.freewestpapua.org/take-action/

Alex Sobel is Labour and Co-operative MP for Leeds North West and Chair of International Parliamentarians for West Papua and the All Party Group on West Papua



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