Maire Leadbeater – The Pacific Islands Forum holds its annual meeting this week. Usually the leaders manage to avoid mention of the desperate human rights crisis in Indonesian-controlled West Papua in their communique, or to dismiss the issue in a formula of words so insipid it has negligible impact.
This year, however, thanks mainly to the tireless work of Vanuatu and its energetic Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu, this is set to change.
In their pre-forum meeting, the regions' foreign ministers put forward their recommendation that the communique should state the region's insistence that Indonesia fulfil its undertaking to allow the UN Human Rights Commissioner to visit and ensure a report is available to the 2020 Forum. The ministers also advocate that Indonesia pursue "constructive dialogue" with West Papuans and urge everyone to refrain from violence. Nothing particularly radical about that, of course, but going on past experience Indonesia, a dialogue partner to the forum, will be lobbying to water down this proposal.
The World Council of Churches recently issued a strong statement based on the experiences of the ecumenical pilgrim team which visited in February. The church visitors were not able to access the Nduga area, which is subject to a military operation, but were shocked at the level of militarisation they witnessed and at the situation of the thousands of displaced villagers struggling to cope in the neighbouring regency. Local human rights groups are similarly barred from Nduga but they are documenting dozens of deaths from malnutrition and illness among the displaced.
West Papuans who want a new referendum on their political status are considered guilty of 'separatism', and run up against police brutality for taking part in demonstrations or even prayer meetings.
The Indonesian Government has been pursuing a charm offensive in the Pacific in the face of growing concern about West Papua among Pacific governments and people. The latest move was a flashy trade, investment and tourism Pacific Exposition (12-14 July), held at SkyCity, and attended by delegations from 19 Pacific countries and territories. The Indonesian Ambassador to New Zealand, Tantowi Yahya, said that the incorporation of cultural performances would capture the "harmony" of the South East Asian and Pacific regions.
According to Radio New Zealand International's Mackenzie Smith, Yahya asked the Papuan and other Eastern Indonesian officials at the expo opening to stand up, and then told the other Pacific attendees: "They 100 per cent look like you."
One can only guess at the discomfort of the officials so blatantly enlisted to endorse Indonesia's Pacific credentials. I was outside the venue taking part in a vigil pointing out that Indonesia's treatment of the Melanesian West Papuan people gives the lie to any claim of Pacific benevolence. News stories noted that neither the delegates from Papua nor Yahya would respond to questions about West Papua.
I describe New Zealand's past record on West Papua as a betrayal. Back in the 1960s, our government understood well that the people were being denied their right to self-determination when Indonesia took control and cemented their rule with a fraudulent "Act of Free Choice" better known now by West Papuans as an "Act of No Choice". Regrettably, our leaders chose to prioritise the bilateral relationship with Indonesia as they have done since.
Jacinda Ardern met Indonesian President Joko Widodo last year, undertaking to urge him to allow more open access to West Papua. However, the declassified briefing papers prepared for Ardern's private meeting emphasise that New Zealand regards Papua as the sovereign territory of Indonesia and backs Widodo's personal support for improved human rights and economic and social development in Papua.
West Papua has the highest rates of poverty and HIV/Aids of any part of Indonesia, while economic development is mostly about landgrabbing for mineral exploitation and palm oil plantations. West Papuans who want a new referendum on their political status are considered guilty of "separatism", and run up against police brutality for taking part in demonstrations or even prayer meetings.
Now we have a chance to redeem past inaction by supporting a forum resolution that calls for action and ensures that Indonesia is held to its promise to admit a UN representative. That is not much to ask for a people considered by many to be facing "slow genocide".
[Maire Leadbeater is an organiser with West Papua Action Auckland.]