Comprising the western half of the island of New Guinea, West Papua is a province on Indonesia’s far eastern frontier that has been in constant turmoil since Indonesian independence from the Netherlands. Having many of the same ingredients needed for a replay of Timor-Leste, it isn’t hard to see why comparisons have been drawn between West Papua and its much younger neighbour. Yet while the East Timorese celebrated the UN-assisted independence founded on self-determination, West Papuans mourned the 1969 referendum that denied them theirs.
It has been almost 50 years since the Act of Free Choice, a UN-supervised referendum in which the then non-self-governing territory of West Papua was given the same two choices as the East Timorese: independence or full integration.
After a mere 1,025 handpicked tribal leaders cast their vote, allegedly under military duress, West Papua became a wilayah, or territory, of Indonesia. To this day, the farcical and undemocratic nature of the plebiscite has been a key driving force of the Papua Merdeka (Free Papua) movement and other elements in the international community who call for West Papuan self-determination.
In the context of decolonisation, self-determination refers to the creation of an independent state and the ability of people to determine their own socio-economic and cultural development, free from alien domination, within their own state.
In 1960, with a third of the world’s population under colonial rule and demanding their independence, the United Nations’ General Assembly adopted Resolution 1514 that called for an end to the “subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation,” decrying it as a violation of human rights and the United Nations’ Charter. Since then, self-determination has been reinforced by state practice and entrenched in treaty law as a fundamental human right.
So how does Indonesia view all of this? Unsurprisingly, given its ideological fervour over ‘persatuan dan kesatuan’ or unity and integrity, Indonesia firmly believes that West Papua has always been a part of Indonesia, just as it was a part of the Dutch East Indies. However this argument oversimplifies and ignores the fact that until 1969 Indonesia did not have sovereignty over West Papua. It had exercised UN-supervised administration over the territory after taking over responsibilities from the UN, which in turn had taken over administration from the Netherlands through the New York Agreement.
This was the first treaty that laid out Indonesia’s obligations towards West Papua and decided the region’s status. It required Indonesia to hold a referendum in accordance with international standards, where every Papuan adult was given one vote. However the coercion of 1,025 tribal elders into voting for integration was labelled musyawarah, a consensus-based decision making process deemed more suitable by Indonesia.
In addition, the UN Charter, under article 73, conferred all countries with a ‘sacred trust’ to bring territories like West Papua to self-governance, while Resolution 1541 (XV) set two conditions to be met before West Papua could be integrated into another state; firstly, that the territory had to have “attained an advanced stage of self-government with free political institutions” and secondly, that integration should only occur if people are “acting [freely] with full knowledge of the change in their status” and that their choices are expressed through an “informed and democratic processes”.
However, Indonesia fulfilled none of its treaty obligations and breached the ‘sacred trust’ endowed to it through the UN Charter, thus casting into doubt the legitimacy of its claim over West Papua and giving it a status, forbidden under international law, as a colonised territory. Yet neither the global community nor the UN have supported or recognised West Papuan’s claim for self-determination, creating dire implications.
In West Papua, state oppression by Indonesian authorities is a bitter throwback to the more overt forms of colonial oppression that all Indonesians endured under Dutch occupation. Additionally, there is strong evidence of human rights abuses, especially by the state and counter-terrorism detachment of the military which employs violence, intimidation, cultural deprivation and social marginalisation in what has been labelled a ‘slow-motion genocide’.
So what hope does West Papua, an occupied territory in the 21st century, have for self-determination?
At the moment it seems quite bleak. As a province, not a state, and given Indonesia’s lack of consent to compulsory jurisdiction from the International Court of Justice, it cannot bring a claim before the court nor can it hope of winning a case through domestic avenues. Yet hope does reside in activists who bring their plight to human rights organisations and regional supporters such as the UN’s Human Rights Commission and other pacific nations, who come before the General Assembly in the hope that a free autonomous Papua will finally become a reality.
Raveen is in his final year of a Political Science and International Relations, and Indonesian major at the University of Western Australia. He’s interested in Australia-Indonesia relations, and spends far too much time obsessing over his Instagram aesthetic.