MSG meeting in Rarotonga appoints special envoy on West Papua

MSG leaders in Vanuatu

Meeting in Rarotonga in the lead up to the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) has agreed to appoint a special envoy to engage in talks with Indonesia on the issue of West Papua.

Following a meeting of MSG delegations on Monday morning, Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka announced: “Earlier today, the Melanesian Spearhead Group Caucus appointed me as a Special Envoy to address the West Papua issue. Alongside Prime Minister James Marape of Papua New Guinea, we’ve been tasked with meeting the President of Indonesia to discuss this pressing matter.”

The head of Vanuatu’s delegation to this week’s summit, Climate Minister Ralph Regenvanu, chaired the MSG sub-regional meeting on Monday.

In a tweet, Regenvanu noted that the decision to send a special envoy was “an additional measure agreed to by the MSG, which supplements the existing decisions of Pacific Islands Forum and MSG for an independent assessment by the UN Human Rights Commissioner and an MSG Leaders visit to West Papua.”

At the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, leaders called on the Indonesian government to allow a UN human rights delegation to visit West Papua – but they’re still waiting. For many years, the Indonesian government has blocked a formal mission to West Papua by the United Nations Office of the Human Rights Commissioner.

At the 22nd MSG summit in Port Vila last August, Melanesian leaders reaffirmed that “the most appropriate fora to discuss matters is at the United Nations through the UN Human Rights Council.”

MSG leaders continue to call for the implementation of the 2019 Forum decision, and are likely to raise the issue with other Forum members later this week.

Within the MSG, Vanuatu has long been a leading supporter of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP), with strong support from the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS), the independence coalition that represents New Caledonia within the five-member organisation.

At the 75th session of the UN General Assembly in 2020, Vanuatu’s then Prime Minister Bob Loughman noted: “The indigenous people of West Papua continue to suffer from human rights abuses…last year, leaders from the Pacific Islands Forum respectfully called on the Indonesian government to allow the United Nations Office of the Human Rights Commissioner to visit West Papua province.”

Indonesia hasn’t bowed to Forum lobbying, even though it has been a Forum Dialogue Partner since 2001.

In recent years, the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has strengthened its engagement in the islands region, seeking to blunt solidarity for the West Papuan nationalist movement, as well as engaging with regional agendas on security, oceans and transport connections with Melanesia. Indonesia’s diplomacy advanced when it gained MSG associate membership in 2015, while the ULMWP was only granted observer status. Attempts by the ULMWP to gain full MSG membership – similar to the status of New Caledonia’s FLNKS – have been delayed and thwarted since then.

The foothold of MSG associate membership has enabled Jakarta to expand political influence on the governments in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, even as community support for West Papua has grown. Over the last decade, Jakarta has ramped its regional diplomacy, with a primary objective of preventing the relisting of West Papua on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories (Indonesia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea are all members of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, but West Papua is not currently listed, unlike New Caledonia and French Polynesia).

In September, PNG Prime Minister James Marape met President Widodo on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta. Jokowi said “I greatly appreciate Papua New Guinea’s support for Indonesia’s sovereignty and integrity, including the support demonstrated at last month’s MSG summit.”

Over the past few years, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat has continued to engage with Jakarta, while acknowledging Indonesia’s claims of sovereignty over West Papua.

Forum Secretary General Henry Puna conducted a four-day mission to Indonesia in December last year, attending the Indonesia-Pacific Forum for Development and the 15th Bali Democracy Forum. Puna noted that “there is a lot the Pacific can learn from Indonesia, a nation of 17,000 islands, particularly in their strategic sectors of aviation and shipping.”

At the same time, Pacific church and civil society activists are concerned that Indonesian diplomacy is weakening government support for West Papuans. In 2021 and 2022, there was no mention of West Papua in the official Forum communiqué.

To harass the West Papua solidarity movement across the region, Indonesian trolls often bombard journalists and West Papuan activists on social media. Research from cyber security groups like Bellingcat has documented how these bot networks are driven by companies affiliated to the Indonesian government.

Despite this, the major regional ecumenical organisation, the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), has joined other community organisation to campaign for the right to self-determination and an end to human rights abuses by the Indonesian military and police.

Responding to the latest MSG initiative, a statement from PCC General Secretary Reverend James Bhagwan “welcomes Melanesian Spearhead Group move to engage further with Indonesia on the situation in West Papua and calls for an inclusive process of engagement that doesn’t leave West Papuans out of the talanoa.”

Reverend Bhagwan added: “While appreciative of the appointment by the MSG of Fiji PM Rabuka and PNG Prime Minister Marape as special envoys to meet with the President of Indonesia on West Papua, the engagement of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) as MSG Observers will need to be secured by PMs for this process to have legitimacy.”

“We also call for an eminent persons group, including Civil Society, to accompany the process for transparency,” he said. “The situation in West Papua will also be on the agenda of the 12th Pacific Conference of Churches General Assembly, which begins in just over a week in Kanaky-New Caledonia.”

PCC members have long supported their ecumenical partners in Jayapura. After an attack on the headquarters of the Kingmi church on 16 September, the moderator of the Papuan Council of Churches Benny Giay stated that the church was being targeted because of its civic work on behalf of West Papuans.

Other civil society groups around the region continue to support self-determination for the people of West Papua. Joey Tau of Youngsolwara Pacific said: “We welcome the decision of the MSG leaders on the appointment of Prime Minister Rabuka as a special envoy, and hope the Forum leaders will endorse this. However we also call for peace talks and negotiations to ensure that the leaders of West Papua are at the table as people negotiate a pathway forward.”

International human rights organisations continue to raise concern over ongoing rights violations by Indonesian security forces. Over the last two months, sporadic killings and acts of torture have continued across different regions of West Papua. In September, for example,  Indonesian military operations displaced 674 people in the highland’s regency of Yahukimo, with five teenage Papuans killed by the Indonesian military. The same month, in the coastal regency of Fakfak, five civilians were killed during a military sweep in the village of Mamur.

With elections for the Indonesian Presidency and People’s Consultative Assembly looming in February 2024, President Joko Widodo ends his term of office without reining in abuses by Indonesian security forces in West Papua. If the Forum agrees to back the MSG’s Special Envoy at this week’s meeting in Rarotonga, he will have a short window to get a response from Jakarta.