UN urges Indonesia to protect rights of West Papua activists

UN Human Rights Council experts call for immediate measures to protect freedom of expression as demonstrations continue.

Protest - Jakarta - Papua
UN human rights experts urged the Indonesian government on Monday to 'recognise the rights of all protesters' [File: Bagus Indahono/EPA]

A group of UN human rights experts has urged the government of Indonesia to protect the rights of activists advocating for more freedom in the country’s West Papua and allow unrestricted access to information from the restive eastern region as rumblings for independence continue. 

In a statement issued on Monday, UN Human Rights Council officials said restrictions on freedom of expression in West Papua, “not only undermined discussion of Government policies but also jeopardised the safety of human rights defenders reporting on alleged violations”.

“We call for immediate measures to ensure the protection of freedom of expression and address acts of harassment, intimidation, interference, undue restriction and threats against those reporting on the protests,” the experts said.

On Monday, more demonstrations were reported in Yahukimo regency in Papua province, according to a social media post by human rights lawyer and activist, Veronica Koman.

Koman also said that three people have reportedly been arrested and others “forcibly dispersed” in Yapen Islands Regency, also in Papua.

Recent reports said that several West Papua activists, including Koman, have been arrested or had warrants issued for them for alleged incitement to violence, spreading false information and other actions directed at the central government.

Jakarta has issued an arrest warrant for Koman, who is currently overseas, and reportedly threatened to cancel her passport, freeze her bank accounts and request that Interpol locate her.

Last week, authorities detained activist Buchtar Tabuni after he was charged with alleged treason.

Two weeks ago, Indonesian news site Tempo reported that at least 20 people had been arrested in West Papua for alleged rioting.

The Civil Society Coalition for Democracy in Indonesia had also told Al Jazeera that eight activists had been arrested, including Surya Anta of the Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua.

Three female Papuan students were also reportedly being held.

Excessive force

Protests have been going on in the West Papua region since the middle of August. 

Demonstrations started after a group of indigenous Papuan students on the island of Java were allegedly racially abused and harassed by authorities.

At times, the protests have turned violent and Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported that as many as 10 people have been killed.

The government has responded to the protests by deploying thousands of police and military personnel to the region and shutting down the internet.

The internet was later restored and the officers accused of the racial abuse that incited the protests have reportedly been dismissed or suspended. But arrests of activists continue. 

In the statement on Monday, the UN experts warned that the protests “will not be stopped by an excessive use of force or by cracking down on freedom of expression and access to information.”

“We urge the Government of Indonesia to recognise the rights of all protesters and to ensure continuation of the internet service,” the experts added, while welcoming the restoration of the internet on September 4 in almost all of West Papua region, which comprises Papua and West Papua provinces.

West Papua was a Dutch colony until the early 1960s when Indonesia took control, cementing its rule later in the decade with a controversial referendum.

Jakarta maintains that West Papua, which shares an island with Papua New Guinea, is Indonesian because it was part of the Dutch East Indies, which forms the basis of the country’s modern-day borders.

A low-level armed rebellion by indigenous Papuans, who now make up about half the population after years of migration by people from other parts of Indonesia, has been rumbling ever since.

In December, violence erupted again after a group of construction workers was attacked by separatist rebels, leaving at least 17 dead and triggering a military crackdown.

Some 35,000 civilians were forced from their homes as the security forces attempted to flush out the rebels from the forested mountains.

According to HRW, West Papuans have increasingly become targets of intimidation by “Islamist and nationalist groups” in Indonesia since the formation in 2014 of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, which is advocating for Papuan independence.

Source: Al Jazeera