Ben Doherty – Human rights violations and political independence in West Papua are set to command debate at this week's Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), where Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda will urge government leaders to support the "Free Papua" campaign amid recent escalating political violence.
Exiled from Papua, but now an official representative attached to the Vanuatu government's delegation, Wenda is campaigning for a United Nations general assembly resolution next year that will re-examine the controversial 1969 Act of Free Choice vote that formalised Indonesian control of the province.
Wenda told the Guardian the human rights abuses and civil repressions that currently blight the province are a "cancer inside the heart of the people of the Pacific", but that major powers in the region choose to ignore it for geo-strategic and economic regions.
Indonesia – not a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, but a "dialogue partner" attending this week's forum – regards West Papua as an integral and indivisible part of the Indonesian state.
Indonesian-controlled Papua and West Papua form the western half of the island of New Guinea. Political control of the region has been contested for more than half a century and Indonesia has consistently been accused of human rights violations and violent suppression of the region's independence movement.
West Papuan sources say violence in the region is worsening, protesters have been beaten and jailed, and there have been claims white phosphorous, a banned chemical weapon, has been used to attack civilians. This claim has been strenuously denied by Indonesia.
A spokesman for the Indonesian government said Jakarta was "not at all happy" West Papua had been included on the formal agenda for the forum leaders' meeting in Tuvalu, and warned the move would establish a precedent for interference in other countries' domestic affairs.
"Developments in Papua and West Papua province are purely Indonesia's internal affairs. No other country, organisation or individual has the right to interfere in them. We firmly oppose the intervention of Indonesia's internal affairs in whatever form."The West Papuan delegation was expected to arrive for the forum at the weekend, but were unable to board flights to Tuvalu from Fiji. On Sunday, Enele Sopoaga the prime minister of Tuvalu, and Dame Meg Taylor, secretary general of the PIF, said they had no idea what had happened. It appears the problem was an administrative one on the part of the Vanuatu government, with whom the west Papuan delegation were meant to be travelling.
At a meeting of the region's foreign ministers last month, Vanuatu successfully pushed to have the issue of West Papua formally included on the Pacific Islands Forum agenda, over the vociferous objections of Australia.
Wenda said while the Pacific's regional powers, Australia and New Zealand, are vocal critics of rights abuses around the world "they never talk about West Papua".
"We are human beings who want to live in peace, but we are discriminated against because others want to depopulate our place and take our resources.
"Australia has a big responsibility in the region. Australia needs to look at this as their own issue, as a regional issue, because it will never go away in the eyes of the people. This issue is like cancer inside the heart of the people of the Pacific."
Wenda said the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) he leads ultimately seeks a free and fair vote on secession from Indonesia. "We have never exercised our right to self-determination, that has been denied us. We are not seeking violence, we seek our rights peacefully, to decide for ourselves our future. Let us vote," Wenda said.
Last year's Pacific Islands Forum communique stated: "Leaders recognised the constructive engagement by Forum countries with Indonesia with respect to elections and human rights in West Papua."
Wenda is seeking a similar, if not stronger, united commitment from the Pacific bloc this year, ahead of a campaign to have the UN pass a resolution next year mandating the re-examination of the UN-supervised Act of Free Choice.
Along with climate change, the issue of West Papua is likely to set Australia in opposition to its Pacific island neighbours at this week's forum.
Australia is strongly supportive of Indonesian sovereignty over Papua, while the independence movement has widespread support among Pacific island nations – particularly Melanesian neighbours Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands – where it is seen as a continuation of the decades-long decolonisation movement across the region.
A spokesman for Australia's foreign affairs department said: "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 spokesman said Australia regularly raised human rights concerns with Indonesian authorities, including regarding the Papua provinces.
The Indonesian government spokesman said discussion of West Papua at the forum this week would create a "negative precedent to openly discuss the domestic affairs of other countries... we believe no countries will accept that".
The spokesman said Papua had self-governance rights through its special autonomy status and democratically elected leaders that participated in Indonesian political system.
"In the 2019 elections, the turn out in the province of Papua and West Papua was 88%... 94% of the vote was in favour of president Jokowi's administration. This high turn-out reflects the strong recognition of the Papuan people's political aspiration and their faith towards the democratic process in Indonesia."
The people indigenous to West Papua are Melanesian, ethnically distinct from most of the rest of Indonesia and more closely linked to the people of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia.
Formerly the Netherlands New Guinea, Papua was retained by the Dutch after Indonesian independence in 1945 but the province was annexed by Jakarta in 1963.
Indonesia formalised its control over West Papua in 1969 when its military hand-picked 1,025 of West Papua's population and coerced them into voting in favour of Indonesian annexation under a UN-supervised, but undemocratic, process known as the Act of Free Choice.Known as Irian Jaya until 2000, it was split into two provinces, Papua and West Papua, in 2003. Those provinces have semi-autonomous status.
In May this year, the then UK government minister for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, described the Act of Free Choice as an "utterly flawed process", but said there was no international appetite to revisit the question of the legitimacy of Indonesia's control.