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Australia’s illogic over Timor and West Papua

Source here – Pat Walsh

This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison joins other Pacific leaders for a summit in Tuvalu. There, in addition to climate change and other matters, he will be challenged by his counterparts to address the issue of human rights violations in West Papua.

For some Pacific leaders and Papuan activists, the continuing resistance and repression in Papua is due to the denial of self-determination to the Papuan people by the United Nations in August 1969, 50 years ago this month, and their forced incorporation into Indonesia as its 26th province. Australia endorsed the incorporation and continues to uphold it.

A few days later, the PM will travel to Timor-Leste to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that nation’s act of self-determination. In August 1999, also facilitated by the United Nations, 78.5 per cent of East Timorese voted freely for independence from Indonesia, ending their forced incorporation as Indonesia’s 27th province.

One wonders if the Prime Minister will be aware of the supreme irony of these two events, the lack of logic in Australia’s conflicting policies on the fate of the two peoples, and Canberra’s flexible approach to the much vaunted international rules based order when it does not serve pragmatic national interests.

As it has for many years, Vanuatu is spearheading expressions of concern about ongoing violence in West Papua. Aware that China’s increasing presence in the region is giving the Pacific new leverage in Canberra, Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu has overcome objections by Australia to rally support from other members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and have West Papua listed on the summit agenda. 

He particularly wants the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Papua and report to the Forum before its next meeting in 2020. Also of interest is that Regenvanu hosted a visit to Port Vila in May by Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General. Guterres was Prime Minister of Portugal in 1999 and is highly regarded in Timor-Leste for urging UN intervention there in response to the violence following the referendum.

Regenvanu has also ensured a seat at TIF proceedings for Benny Wenda, the UK-based leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. Wenda is campaigning for the UN General Assembly to re-examine the 1969 Act of Free Choice. The World Council of Churches has recently registered its concerns about human rights in Papua.

“Fifty years on, Papuans continue to feel a deep sense of injustice; and Papua remains Jakarta’s only post-independence territorial problem which neither military crackdowns nor good will gestures have resolved.”

All this is heresy in Jakarta and Canberra. As with East Timor previously, both regard West Papua as a non-negotiable part of Indonesia. ‘Developments in Papua and West Papua province are purely Indonesia’s internal affairs,’ stated a Foreign Ministry response to PIF.

Australia is even more forthright: ‘Australia recognises Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Papua provinces, as stated in the Lombok Treaty of 2006. Australia will not support efforts that undermine Indonesian sovereignty over Papua in any forum and will not associate itself with any PIF communique to that effect.’

The UN recognised that East Timor and West Papua both enjoyed the right to self-determination and a free one-person one-vote say on their political future. In East Timor, after a long struggle, the principle was honoured in 1999 and resulted in peace, human rights and the relationship that Timor-Leste and Indonesia now enjoy. In West Papua, it was subverted by Suharto’s military, who allowed only 1025 Papuans to vote.

The result is plain to see. Fifty years on, Papuans continue to feel a deep sense of injustice; and Papua remains Jakarta’s only post-independence territorial problem which neither military crackdowns nor good will gestures by President Joko Widodo have resolved.

Scholars in the Netherlands and others increasingly argue that the UN is guilty of a grave miscarriage of justice in West Papua. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called for a review and the UK Minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, recently described the Act as ‘an utterly flawed process’.

Papuans are entitled to ask, why did the UN treat them differently to the East Timorese? And is a flawed process irreversible? For answers, they are rightly turning their attention to the rules based system. The law that incorporated Papua into the Republic is currently being tested in Indonesia’s Constitutional Court in Jakarta and UN members are being asked to support a review of the 1969 process.

If they are confident of their case, what have Jakarta and Canberra to fear from such enquiries?



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