Dian Septiari, Jakarta – Indonesia has again sent a junior diplomat to defend its national interest to protect its easternmost provinces at the United Nations General Assembly, where the small island nation of Vanuatu renewed its call to investigate alleged human rights violations in Papua.
In a pre-recorded statement at the General Assembly over the weekend, Vanuatu's Prime Minister Bob Loughman said there was a "selective approach" in addressing human rights violations in the region, claiming that the people of West Papua continued to suffer from human rights abuses.
Loughman said the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum had made a call last year for the Indonesian government to allow the UN Office of the Human Rights Commissioner to visit Papua and West Papua provinces.
"To date there has been little progress on this front. I therefore called on the Indonesian government to please hear the previous call of Pacific leaders," he said on Saturday, according to a recording on the UN website.
Leaders of countries grouped under the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) had raised concerns last year over the handling of alleged human rights abuses in Papua, a move Indonesia immediately objected to.
In a communique from a PIF summit in Tuvalu last August, the leaders "strongly encouraged" Indonesia to finalize the timing of a visit by the UN human rights commissioner to investigate alleged human rights abuses and allow the commissioner to create an "evidence-based, informed report" on the situation in Papua.
In exercising Indonesia's first right of reply to Loughman's speech on Saturday, second secretary at the Indonesian mission to the UN, Silvany Austin Pasaribu, accused Vanuatu of having an "excessive and unhealthy obsession" about how Indonesia should govern itself.
Citing the UN Charter, Silvany said that countries must respect the principles of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries and respect their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
"At times of an emergency health crisis and great economic adversity, it prefers to instill enmity and sow division in their advocacy for separatism with flowery human rights concerns," she said in a recording on UNTV.
She then reiterated Indonesia's position that the provinces of Papua and West Papua were irrevocable parts of Indonesia since its independence in 1945 – and that it was endorsed by the UN and the global community.
"You are not a representation of the people of Papua – stop fantasizing about being one," she said.
Indonesian officials have entertained repeated efforts to undermine the nation's sovereignty at the multilateral forum, having noted what they consider a regular uptick in provocations in the easternmost provinces around September, when the annual UN summitry commences.
Papua and West Papua are the site of decades of simmering tensions between separatist groups and security forces, which at times resulted in what activists have flagged as alleged human rights violations. The separatists have seized upon this opportunity to influence other nations.
Since then, Jakarta has launched a charm offensive and ramped up engagement in the South Pacific, a region with overarching ethnic and cultural affinities with the people of Papua and West Papua. Most of its residents, as well as a few others from other provinces in Indonesia's east, are ethnically Melanesian.
Other Pacific island nations, which initially followed Vanuatu's lead, have since sought constructive relations with Indonesia.
More recently, the task of rebuking critics at the UN has fallen to the laps of Indonesia's junior diplomats, a diplomatic gesture that makes light of the criticism.
Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an international relations research professor, noted that while Vanuatu's "persistent and routine" criticism should not warrant an overreaction on Indonesia's part, the country still needed to ensure that others are not swayed by the island nation's opinions.
"The Indonesian government must of course ensure that policies in Papua are consistent with what the diplomats are saying. If you want to change the image you need to change the reality on the ground," said the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) expert.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not deterred violence in Papua, most recently with the death of Papuan pastor Yeremia Zanambani in Hitadipa district of Intan Jaya regency, who was allegedly shot by personnel from the Indonesian Military (TNI).
The death of the senior missionary has prompted grievances from Papua's residents, most recently by the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI).
Citing reports from leaders of the Indonesian Evangelical Christian Church (GKII) and local media in Papua, PGI chairman Gomar Gultom alleged that Yeremia was shot by military personnel when he was on his way to his pig pen, at the same time as a military operation was reportedly taking place.
However, the military published a statement on Sunday saying Yeremia had been shot by an armed criminal group in the area.
Separately, LIPI's head researcher on Papua studies, Adriana Elizabeth, expressed regret that Indonesia had allowed itself to be dragged down by a small island nation.
"The five-minute response should not have been spent only to respond to what Vanuatu said. The fact that this is Indonesia's domestic affair is enough, but it should have pointed out that many things have been done to manage the conflicts – something Vanuatu knows nothing about," she said.
Adriana said the government had for a long time tried to address conflict and violence in the two provinces, including through the special autonomy status, prioritizing infrastructure development in the two provinces and empowering local politicians.
"So instead of giving the same response, we should point out that Papua is different now," she said.