Helen Davidson – Indonesia has agreed in principle to allow the UN office of the human rights commissioner into West Papua amid continuing violence in the region.
The long-running low-level insurgency violently escalated late last year, after West Papuan guerrillas attacked a construction site in Nduga, killing at least 17 people they claimed were Indonesian military but who Jakarta insists were civilian workers.
In response Indonesia launched a military crackdown in the region, leading to a number of deaths and thousands of people allegedly being displaced after they fled into the jungle.
The office of the high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, told the Guardian she had been engaging with Indonesian authorities on the issue of West Papua and "the prevailing human rights situation" and had requested access to the area.
"Indonesia has in-principle agreed to grant the office access to Papua and we are waiting for confirmation of the arrangements," said a spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasandi.
Shamdasani has previously said the attack by the guerrillas was unacceptable violence but the Indonesian government was not addressing the root causes of the separatist conflict.
West Papuan leaders were informed of the development at a Geneva meeting between the commissioner and Vanuatu representatives on Friday, during which the exiled West Papuan leader Benny Wenda handed over a petition signed by 1.8 million of his people.
The UN spokeswoman said the meeting had not been arranged for the purpose of receiving the petition but was in the context of Vanuatu's universal periodic review session before the UN human rights council.
The petition, smuggled out of the region in 2017, calls for a UN investigation into allegations of human rights abuses and for an internationally supervised vote on independence.
"In 2017 nearly 2 million of you risked arrest, torture and assassination to raise your voices through this historical petition," Wenda said after the meeting.
"Today, with official state-level support from the Vanuatu government, we, the people of West Papua, have presented it to the UN high commissioner for human rights. We are working day and night to approach the UN general assembly in New York."
The petition was banned in West Papua and blocked online at the time activists collected signatures. Papers were "smuggled from one end of Papua to the other", Wenda told the Guardian at the time.
In September 2017 Wenda sought to deliver the petition to the UN's decolonisation committee but was rebuffed, with the committee saying West Papua was outside its mandate.
The committee's chair, Rafael Ramirez, said at the time the mandate extended only to the 17 states identified by the UN as "non self-governing territories".
West Papua was removed from the list in 1963 when it was annexed by Indonesia, an act many Papuans consider to be illegal and which was the start of a long-running separatist insurgency.
The petition included new requests for UN investigations into the violence in Nduga, including allegations that Indonesian forces used chemical weapons against civilians – a charge Indonesia denies.
Billy Wibisono, the first secretary of political affairs at Indonesia's embassy in Canberra, said the allegations were baseless, "misleading and false news".
"Armed separatists in Papua have conducted heinous crimes including murder of innocent civilians," he said in a letter to the Saturday Paper, which published the allegations.
"As a compliant member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Indonesia possesses no chemical agents as listed in schedule 1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention; while the schedules 2 and 3 chemical agents are used for strictly peaceful purposes. Such have been confirmed by 19 OPCW inspections since 2004. Hence, no Indonesian apparatus has ever been in possession or utilised any chemical weapons."
On Monday an Indonesian military spokesman, Muhammad Aidi, said one soldier was dead after separatists in Nduga opened fire on an aircraft.
Aidi said another soldier had been injured in the attack on the light plane, which had just taken off from Kenyam airport, carrying military personnel and local government members including the chief of Nduga district.
Amid the crackdown, which followed mass arrests of pro-independence protesters in early December, Indonesian authorities have also raided and destroyed a number of headquarters of the domestic movement, the West Papua National Committee.
At least three people – including the activist Yanto Awerkion, who was imprisoned for his involvement with the petition – are facing "rebellion" charges after holding a prayer meeting they had notified authorities about.
The Indonesian government has been contacted for comment.