Activists in Indonesia’s mountainous jungle-clad Papua region risked imprisonment to collect 1.8 million signatures for a petition calling for self-determination but had a final dilemma: They were blocked from presenting it to the intended recipient, the United Nations.
An attempt to present the petition in 2017 to the U.N. committee responsible for monitoring the progress of colonized territories toward independence was rebuffed. The chairman of the committee said it couldn’t be accepted because Papua was not part of its mandate.
Highlighting the risks of the endeavor, an activist promoting the petition was arrested by Indonesian authorities in 2017 and sentenced the following year to 10 months in prison. He was arrested again this month along with several others who face treason charges.
Last week they succeeded, aided by the diplomatic equivalent of a wink and a nod from the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, which has been championing the Papuan cause.
Vanuatu officials had a scheduled meeting last Friday in Geneva with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. Among them was an exiled Papuan leader, Benny Wenda, who presented the voluminous petition to Bachelet.
“During this meeting, one member of the Vanuatu delegation, Mr. Benny Wenda, presented the high commissioner with a petition. This was not actually a meeting arranged with Mr. Wenda for that purpose,” said Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokeswoman at the U.N. Human Rights Office.
Bachelet “was not aware” in advance, she said.
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua sent The Associated Press a photo of Wenda passing the petition to a smiling Bachelet.
Indonesia reacted angrily, accusing Vanuatu of “taking manipulative steps through the infiltration of Benny Wenda into the Vanuatu delegation.”
An insurgency has simmered in Papua since the early 1960s when Indonesia annexed the region, which had remained under Dutch control following Indonesia’s 1945 declaration of independence from the Netherlands. Last month, rebels killed 19 people working on a construction site for a trans-Papua highway in the deadliest attack in years. The Indonesian government denies 20 Papuans were killed in reprisal security operations.
The government says the territory is rightfully Indonesia’s under international law because it was part of the Dutch East Indies empire that is the basis for Indonesia’s modern borders.
But Papuans, culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia, say they were denied the right to decide their own future. Indonesian control was formalized in 1969 with a U.N.-supervised referendum in which little more than 1,000 Papuans were allowed to vote in an atmosphere of heavy intimidation.
Today the region is divided administratively into two provinces, Papua and West Papua, but supporters of independence call the entire region, which makes up the western half of New Guinea, West Papua.
The petition makes several demands of the U.N., including calling on it to review its involvement in the “unlawful annexation” of Papua, to appoint a special representative to investigate the human rights situation, to reinstate Papua on the decolonization committee’s agenda and to conduct an internationally supervised referendum on self-determination.
“Indonesia’s fake referendum included less than 0.2 percent of the population in 1969. The West Papuan People’s Petition of 2017 has 70 percent of the population,” Wenda, who is head of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, said in a statement.
“Indonesia’s entire claim to West Papua rests on what happened in 1969. That claim is destroyed now,” he said.
He said he and others are “working day and night” to bring the petition to the U.N. General Assembly.
Indonesia’s mission to the U.N. said Vanuatu had “deliberately deceived” Bachelet. It said Indonesia “would never retreat to defend and protect” its territorial sovereignty.
The U.N. reiterated previous statements it has made about Papua. Indonesia in February last year agreed that a U.N. rights delegation could visit Papua, to which Jakarta tightly controls access, but no visit has taken place.
Shamdasani said Bachelet informed the Vanuatu delegation that the U.N. Human Rights Office “has been engaging with the Indonesian authorities on the issue of Papua, including the prevailing human rights situation, and has requested access to Papua.”