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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.
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
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
"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
Papuans concerned over renewed US-Indonesia military ties
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
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.