Oct 22, 2019 Last Updated 2:59 AM, Oct 16, 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.”

LAST month, New Zealand-based analyst Jose Sousa-Santos commented on Twitter that “Indonesia’s attempt at buying support from the Pacific region seems to have little to no impact on Melanesia’s stance on (West) Papua”. That’s one of those pesky observations that’s neither entirely right nor entirely wrong.

The truth is: Indonesia is winning almost every battle… and still losing the fight. Conventional wisdom used to be that Indonesia had built an impregnable firewall against Melanesian action in support of West Papuan independence. Its commercial and strategic relationship with Papua New Guinea is such that PNG’s foreign affairs establishment will frankly admit that their support for Indonesia’s territorial claims is axiomatic. Call it realpolitik or call it timidity, but they feel that the West Papuan independence doesn’t even bear contemplating.

Widespread grassroots support and its popularity among progressive up-andcomers such as Gary Juffa don’t seem to matter. As long as Jakarta holds the key to economic and military tranquillity, Port Moresby’s elites are content to toe the Indonesian line.

The situation in Suva is similar. Fiji First is naturally inclined is toward a more authoritarian approach to governance. And it seems that the military’s dominance of Fiji’s political landscape dovetails nicely with Indonesia’s power dynamic.

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The clock ticks

Indonesia fails media test in West Papua

JUST five months before Indonesia is set to host UNESCO’s 2017 celebration of World Press Freedom Day, its government still has not met a regional human rights watchdog’s demands to address press freedom violations in the country’s restive West Papua province.

Upon the announcement in July that UNESCO would mark May 3, 2017 with a conference in Jakarta, the Pacific Freedom Forum (PFF) set that date as a deadline for Indonesia’s government to “ensure that there is open access to West Papua for foreign media, and an end to abuses against local media”.

However, the government has rejected that demand. In July, the Minister Counsellor at Indonesia’s embassy in New Zealand, Wanton Saragih, argued that great strides forward in terms of press freedom in West Papua have been made under the current administration, including a lift on the ban against foreign journalists. Last year, all foreign journalists’ visa applications to West Papua were reportedly approved, including a request by Radio New Zealand International reporter Johnny Blades.

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THE issue of West Papua remains a headache for the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Member countries like Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji are reluctant to grant full membership to the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), which is lobbying for regional support. But the issue will not go away, as civil society networks call on their leaders to support the right to self-determination.

First adopted in 2014, the Framework for Pacific Regionalism (FPR) is the new policy mechanism for business and community organisations to put forward submissions for regional action by the Forum. In both 2015 and this year, the largest number of submissions through the FPR called for action on West Papua. In Pohnpei, civil society representatives also met over breakfast with a troika of island leaders, lobbying for the Forum to take the West Papuan issue to the international community.

Despite this, the final Forum communique simply states that “leaders recognised the political sensitivities of the issue of West Papua (Papua) and agreed the issue of alleged human rights violations in West Papua should remain on their agenda. Leaders also agreed on the importance of an open and constructive dialogue with Indonesia on the issue.”

After the meeting, Emele Duituturaga, executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisations (PIANGO) said: “We know that the draft text reflected their intention to take West Papua to the United Nations, but when the final communiqué was released, it had been watered down.”

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Storm warning

Fury over West Papua flag

ON July 13, Indonesian delegates — angry because the Morning Star Flag, emblem of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), was flown alongside other members’ flags — walked out of the first day of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) leaders’ summit. The ULMWP is a coalition of Papuan freedom fighters demanding independence from Indonesian control.

It and Indonesia have both applied for full membership status in the MSG, but for very different reasons. ULMWP hopes the MSG can bring international attention to their struggle for self-determination, while Indonesia wants to shore up its economic position in the region. The Indonesian diplomats demanded the flag be taken down, but the organizers ignored them, and the opening ceremony proceeded without the Indonesian delegation.

The summit resulted in a split decision over the ULMWP’s membership status. Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) of New Caledonia strongly support ULMWP, while Fiji and Papua New Guinea (PNG) — nations Indonesia has courted with sweetheart economic deals and financial support — oppose it.

The Indonesian delegations’ dramatic exit and the ensuing vote over ULMWP’s membership can help us understand long-standing political fault lines in the region that date back to the 1970s anticolonization wave.

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