The UN’s chequered record in West Papua
In the 1960s, West Papuans were sacrificed in the name of Cold War politics – and the UN did nothing about it.
London, United Kingdom – Thousands have taken part in rallies across West Papua and in Australia to mark the UN Secretary-General’s (UNSG) visit to Indonesia, calling on Ban Ki-moon to revisit UN mistakes that lead to the denial of West Papuans’ right to self-determination and to assist in resolving ongoing human rights abuses in Papua.
UN peacekeeping was at the top of the agenda of the UNSG’s visit to Indonesia on Tuesday. West Papua was not, but many argue that it should be. After all, West Papuans are asking that the UN revisit its first – and flawed – administration of a post-conflict society. Observers hailed the success of the UN administration of East Timor and its successful transition to independence.
But few are aware of the UN’s failure in its first attempt at administration in West Papua more than 40 years earlier. East Timor got a democratic vote. West Papua got a sham vote. East Timor got independence. West Papua became part of Indonesia – against its will and in breach of its right to self-determination under the UN Charter.
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Had the UN properly discharged its mandate back then, West Papuans would have celebrated more than 40 years of independence instead of having endured nearly 50 years of oppression. In that time, it is estimated that as many as 500,000 Papuans have been killed at the hands of Indonesian security forces. Yale and Sydney Universities report that the situation is approaching genocide. Papuan activists campaigning for self-determination are routinely arrested and jailed for peacefully expressing their political opinions.
The recent conviction of the Jayapura Five – including Forkorus Yaboisembut, a Papuan tribal leader – drew international condemnation from lawyers and human rights groups. Speaking from prison, Yaboisembut – a recognised political prisoner – called upon Ban Ki-moon to organise peace talks with Indonesia and to use his visit to Jakarta’s new Peacekeeping Centre to negotiate the release of all political prisoners in Indonesia.
The UNSG made no public supportive comments about West Papua during his visit.
But he may have been dissuaded from doing so given the controversy caused by his comments at the Pacific Islands Forum last September.
Controversy over West Papua
At the Forum, Ban was pressed to support peaceful dialogue between West Papua and Indonesia, to put an end to human rights violations, and “to find a strategy to get Indonesia out of a land that isn’t theirs”. In response to media questions, Ban said that West Papua should be discussed at the Decolonisation Committee of the UN General Assembly. He emphasised that the UN would “do all to ensure” that human rights will be respected in West Papua and that “whether you are an independent state or a non-self-governing territory or whatever, the human right is inalienable and a fundamental principle of the United Nations”.
Ban’s comments implicitly recognise that there is a legitimate case for review of West Papua’s legal status, as well as an acknowledgment that there is basis for concern regarding the human rights situation. West Papuans welcomed Ban’s comments in the belief that, after a long history of UN betrayal, the UN may finally act in their interests and protect their rights under the UN Charter.
The UN act in accordance with the UN Charter? Seems a pretty reasonable expectation. But, sadly, Ban’s comments were highly controversial – representing “a remarkable shift” by the UN chief on West Papua since Ban was “the first head of the UN to come out and say that”. Fifteen human rights and social justice movements immediately called on Ban to appoint a special UN representative to investigate alleged human rights violations in West Papua and its political status.
But the shift in position was apparently too radical to countenance. Days later, and no doubt in response to Indonesian complaints, an unnamed “Official Spokesperson for the Secretary-General” announced in New York that his “off-the-cuff response may have led to the misunderstanding that he was suggesting the matter of Papua should be placed on the agenda of the Decolonisation Committee. The Secretary-General wishes to clarify that this was not his intention.” While the correction let stand the UNSG’s apparent endorsement of the need for the UN to “do all to ensure” human rights are protected in West Papua, no action has yet been taken.
It appears the UN has let West Papua down – and this is not the first time.
The UN’s history in West Papua
West Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea, just 300 km north of Australia. The other, better-known half of the island is the independent state of Papua New Guinea (PNG). The Melanesian peoples of West Papua and PNG share similar ethnicities, cultures and religions. It is merely their different colonial past that sets them apart.
West Papua (then West New Guinea) was colonised by the Dutch, but for convenience’s sake was loosely administered as part of the Dutch East Indies – modern-day Indonesia. When Indonesia obtained independence after World War II, West New Guinea remained under Dutch control and was prepared for independence, as was PNG by Australia. West Papua was a Dutch colony and Non-Self Governing Territory on the path to independence. More than 50 years ago, on December 1, 1961, West Papuans raised their flag and sang their national anthem as they formally announced their independence from the Dutch.
Soon after, Indonesia invaded with political support and arms from the USSR. The US – concerned about losing Indonesia to the Russians and keen to secure lucrative mining contracts – intervened. Under US pressure, the Dutch agreed to a UN- and US-brokered settlement, the New York Agreement of 1962, providing for a UN-supervised Indonesian administration and vote for self-determination by which Papuans could choose independence or integration with Indonesia.
West Papuans were not consulted.
Under the terms of the agreement, West Papua was transferred by the Netherlands to a United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA). Between 1962 and 1963, UNTEA had full authority to administer the territory, to maintain law and order, and to protect the rights of the West Papuans. The territory was then transferred to Indonesian administration in 1963, but on condition that it remained under UN supervision until the vote for self-determination in 1969.
Media reports from around the world at that time highlighted the need for UN vigilance in ensuring a free and fair vote. In 1962, one editorial emphasised, “there is no doubt at all about the United Nations’ responsibility under the agreement – quite apart from its moral responsibility – to ensure the Papuans are allowed to exercise a free choice” and that responsibility “should need no stressing”.
But the UN turned a blind eye – both to human rights abuse and the fact the voting practices did not meet international standards. The 1969 “Act of ‘Free’ Choice” is popularly known as the “Act of ‘NO’ Choice”. A handpicked group of 1,022 West Papuans were coerced, under threat of violence, into voting unanimously for integration with Indonesia.
During the period of UN supervision and in the lead-up to the vote, the Indonesian military is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of 30,000 West Papuans. Frank Galbraith, US Ambassador to Indonesia at the time, warned that Indonesian military operations “had stimulated fears… of intended genocide”. Australian journalist and eye-witness Hugh Lunn reported that Papuans carrying signs saying “one man, one vote” in protest against the voting procedures were arrested and jailed. Others were killed.
The UN was aware of the repression – but did nothing about it. And, worse, it collaborated with Indonesia to prevent international criticism.
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Meantime, the US and Indonesia were busy carving up West Papua’s rich natural resources. Having signed concession agreements with US mining company Freeport in 1967, two years before the scheduled vote, Indonesia had no intention of allowing West Papuan independence (Freeport is a major contributor to Indonesia’s GDP, and Kissinger was later rewarded with a place on Freeport’s board).
The US agreed, but diplomatic cables reveal that it was worried that UN members might “hold out for free and direct elections” (as required by international law), frustrating Indonesia’s intentions. The US discussed the need to meet with the UN Representative, Ortiz Sanz, to “make him aware of political realities” but later reported, with relief, that Ortiz conceded “that it would be inconceivable from the point of view of the interest of the UN, as well as the [Indonesian government], that a result other than the continuance of West Irian within [Indonesia]”. In July 1969, a US diplomatic cable reported that the “Act of Free Choice… is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained”.
West Papuans were sacrificed in the name of Cold War politics and natural resources.
UN officials admitted in private that 95 per cent of Papuans supported independence. But as UN Representative Ortiz Sanz told Australian journalist Hugh Lunn, “West [Papua] is like a cancerous growth on the side of the UN and my job is to surgically remove it”. And remove it he did. In 1969, Sanz reported the vote’s outcome to the UN General Assembly, noting only that “Indonesian” and not “international” voting practice was adopted. West Papua formally became a province of Indonesia.
Former UN Under-Secretary General Narasimhan has since admitted the process was a “whitewash”. British diplomatic correspondence admitted “the process of consultation did not allow a genuinely free choice to be made”. Distinguished international jurists dismiss the 1969 vote as a “spurious exercise”, amounting to a substantive betrayal of the principle of self-determination.
Yet no action has been taken by the UN – or the international community – to redress this injustice. A growing number of international parliamentarians are calling upon their governments, through the UN, to give effect to West Papua’s right to self-determination. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a supporter of West Papua’s campaign to have the UNSG instigate a review, has asserted, “[a] strong United Nations will be capable of, among other things, acknowledging and correcting its mistakes”.
Rights groups have urged the UNSG to appoint a Special Representative to investigate the situation in West Papua, including the outcome of the 1969 “Act of Free Choice” and the contemporary situation, and ask that he use his good offices to negotiate the release of political prisoners and persuade the Indonesian government to lift the ban on access to West Papua for international organisations and journalists.
But will Ban Ki-moon act?
No UN action forthcoming – yet
Since his comments last September, the UNSG has remained silent on West Papua. At his talk in Indonesia on March 20, Ban recalled his own experience as a young boy in South Korea – where he said that UN peacekeepers had been “the beacon of hope” for his people.
Like Ban, the people of West Papua once saw UN peacekeepers as their hope. But as Dr John Saltford, author of The United Nations and the Indonesian Takeover of West Papua, 1962-1969: The Anatomy of Betrayal, has said: “The Papuans had a great deal of trust in the UN, and the UN betrayed them and continues to betray them because, so far, it has refused to review its position on the issue.”
As the Human Rights Council is preparing for Indonesia’s Universal Periodic Review, submissions have poured in with evidence of widespread human rights abuse in West Papua – evidence that many hope will spur the UN into action. But given its history on West Papua, should Papuans place further hope in the UN?
The UNSG’s remarks in Indonesia this week also urged hope in the UN, drawing on his own experience in South Korea: “Please have a bigger sense of hope, don’t despair! It may be very difficult for you. But look at me. As a young boy, I was very poor. [South Korea was] almost on the verge of collapse… But because there was the United Nations, because there is still the United Nations, you can have hope… This is my message to you.”
Let’s hope he is not encouraging more false hope from West Papuans in the UN. Let’s hope the UN will act – because if it does not, then it is simply not the organisation that its leader believes in.
Jennifer Robinson is a London-based human rights lawyer.
Follow her on Twitter @suigenerisjen