Sep 19, 2019 Last Updated 12:50 AM, Sep 19, 2019

By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu

Members of the Pacific Islands Forum have urged Indonesia to take action on human rights violations in West Papua, and strongly encouraged Jakarta to facilitate a long-mooted visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

Regional Prime Ministers and Presidents met this week in Tuvalu for the 50th Pacific Islands Forum. Echoing the language of the Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting in July, the leaders “welcomed the invitation by Indonesia for a mission to West Papua (Papua) by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and strongly encouraged both sides to finalise the timing of the visit and for an evidence-based, informed report on the situation be provided before the next Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting in 2020.”

Human rights groups have long reported on violations by Indonesian police and military forces deployed in West Papua. However, concern has escalated since the Indonesian army extended operations around Nduga in West Papua last December, following the shooting of construction workers on road-building operations through the regency. Since then, West Papuan human rights monitoring groups have reported that more than 30,000 people have been displaced, with healthcare facilities and schools damaged during Indonesian military operations. The Jakarta Post has reported that at least 182 displaced people have died from exposure and lack of food after fleeing their homes since December.

Lobbying the leaders

In recent years, West Papua has been a constant topic on the agenda of the 18-member Pacific Islands Forum. This week in Funafuti, members of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), including chair Benny Wenda and spokesperson Jacob Rumbiak, have been lobbying island leaders for support. Indonesia too has a delegation in Funafuti to participate in the Post-Forum Dialogue, including West Papuan lobbyist Nick Messet.

West Papua was a key issue raised in the formal dialogue between Forum leaders and civil society organisations (CSO) on Wednesday. CSO leaders presented a wide-ranging statement which included the request “that Forum Leaders call on Indonesia to immediately allow access of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN special mandate holders to West Papua….None of us can speak of an inclusive and peaceful Pacific and remain silent on the serious human rights issues for West Papuans. We call on Pacific Leaders to observe the importance of human rights in all parts of our region.” 

Tongan Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva responded emotionally to their call for action on West Papua.

“We should not let others control us. We should stand together in solidarity in support of the people of West Papua”, said Pohiva.

Speaking after the CSO dialogue, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches Reverend James Bhagwan said: “I’m very encouraged by the discussions and that they have made this a priority in the leaders retreat. We try to look at this not just as a moral issue, but to be pragmatic about the realities, knowing that there are strong partnerships between Indonesia and some Forum island countries – that was mentioned by Fiji and Australia.”

“Coming from a human rights perspective, you cannot talk about a Pacific household if people are excluded from that,” Reverend Bhagwan said. “You can’t talk about Pacific regionalism if there’s no Pacific solidarity. The inaction by Pacific leaders on West Papua speaks very loudly to that, and I think that was recognised. The responses from Tonga, from Samoa, even Kiribati and of course Vanuatu – with their consistent support – was very important today.”

Rev. Bhagwan stressed: “You can’t build a house and then ignore people. That recognition of one family, the Pacific family, is very key to this.”   

Leaders want action by Indonesia

In their final communique, Forum leaders “reaffirmed recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua (Papua). Leaders acknowledged the reported escalation in violence and continued allegations of human rights abuses in West Papua (Papua) and agreed to re-emphasise and reinforce the Forum’s position of raising its concerns over the violence.”

ULMWP Chair Benny Wenda said: “I welcome all the leaders’ decision. This is the first time that Forum leaders have called for a United Nations human rights visit. It’s time for Indonesia to allow the UN Human Rights Commissioner to come to visit West Papua. I think it’s an important step now.”

While the resolution makes no mention of the right to self-determination, Wenda welcomed the decision as a positive move forward: “This is step by step. This is the starting point and the fact that the resolution is a really, really important step for us to go to another level.”

Vanuatu has long championed the West Papuan cause and lobbied strongly for action. Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu said: “It’s the resolution we wanted so we’re very grateful to all the Pacific Island leaders. The resolution from the leaders and the very strong statements made in the CSO session on this issue shows that they all recognise that something more has got to be done, because the human rights situation is worsening.”

Regenvanu said he hoped that the UN Human Rights Commissioner could provide an “honest and frank account” to the next Forum leaders’ meeting

“The resolution is the result of the worsening situation just in the last year for human rights in West Papua,” he said. “In the last few years, the resolution has been about constructive engagement with Indonesia on the issue. But I think the leaders realised that the open and constructive engagement had not necessarily achieved the improvements in human rights that are desired. I think the situation in Nduga over the last year has caused Forum leaders to elevate the tone of the resolution.”

With his country scheduled to host the 51st regional summit next year in Port Vila, the Vanuatu Foreign Minister said: “We also want a report back by the next Forum so the leaders can consider it under this agenda, which is a standing agenda of the Forum.”

“The onus is now on the Secretariat of the Forum and the member states of PIF, including the members that are part of the Human Rights Council, that they need to make sure the Commissioner gets to go,” he said. “Indonesia should see that there is a very clear concern and we hope this this statement will make them come to the table and work with the Commissioner to make sure this mission does happen.”

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