Australia's evolving position on West Papua

Australia's evolving position on West Papua

This article first appeared in The Australian Various solidarity gatherings will be held around the world this weekend to mark the 51st anniversary of the first raising of West Papuan "morning star" flag - an act that continues to attract a 15 year prison sentence in Indonesia.

While Australian protests and awareness raising concerts are likely to attract only modest numbers, there are signs that both the Australian public and politicians are becoming increasingly concerned with the human rights situation in the province.

Indeed, while growing public sympathy for Papuan cries for "merdeka", the Bahasa word meaning freedom or independence depending on the translation, is unlikely to translate into any official support for Papuan sovereignty any time soon, there are signs that Australian political leaders are prepared to take a more principled stance on human rights in the province than previously.

To Bob Carr's credit, he is possibly Australia's first foreign minister to directly acknowledge the escalating problems in Papua and call on Indonesia to respect human rights.

Disappointingly though, Carr continues to frame his answers to questions about Papua in terms of the budgetary impacts of "upsetting" Indonesia. Taking a principled stance in defence of basic human rights should not be influenced by budget and trade concerns. He has also unhelpfully attempted to characterise anyone with concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Papua as being "pro-independence". (For the record the Human Rights Law Centre does not have a position on the topic of independence; our focus is purely on the promotion and protection of human rights.)

Carr's circumspect approach is contrasted by the forthright, and most welcome, comments made by Attorney General, Nicola Roxon, while in Indonesia recently for a series of meetings on issues of law and justice. Roxon told the ABC that Australia's recognition of Indonesia's sovereignty over Papua would not stop the Government from registering concern about the situation there. She went on to say Australia is firmly committed to making sure that any abuses or alleged abuses by security forces in Papua are properly investigated and punished.

At the other end of the spectrum within Government ranks is Defence Minister Stephen Smith who, when announcing a new defence co-operation agreement with Indonesia, said he has "no concerns" about the human rights situation in Papua.

Smith's "head in the sand" approach is particularly alarming given it came only weeks after the ABC's 7.30 program aired evidence that an Indonesian counter-terrorism unit, which receives extensive training and support from the Australian Federal Police, has been involved in torture and extra-judicial killings in West Papua.

Meanwhile, a 'parliamentary friends of West Papua' group recently established by the Greens, has attracted cross party support. The group's most recent meeting was attended by Labor, Liberal, DLP and independent MPs. This is a positive sign that at least some members of each party recognise that Australia can maintain good diplomatic relations with Indonesia while taking a principled stand and defending human rights at the same time.

During a recent visit to Australia, Indonesia's Vice Minister of Law and Human Rights, Denny Indrayana, told students at Melbourne Law School that freedom of political participation, together with a free and independent media, were two fundamental pillars of democracy.

He is right of course. However, the reality is that Jakarta's commendable democratic reforms of the last decade have not made it to West Papua. Despite the fact that Indonesia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2006, human rights are severely curtailed in Papua. Protests are routinely and forcibly shut down. Political activists and bashed, jailed or killed. Papuans do not enjoy many of the basic freedoms that other Indonesians have gained.

Australian politicians can and should be more proactive in encouraging their Indonesian counterparts to ensure human rights are enjoyed throughout the entire Republic.

There is no reason why Carr could not challenge Indonesia's effective media ban and insist that Australian journalists be allowed to travel to and report from West Papua.

Further, a complete review of Australia's relationship with Indonesia's military and security forces is urgently required to ensure we are in no way aiding or abetting human rights abuses, directly or indirectly, through our support of Indonesia's elite counter-terrorism unit, Detachment 88.

And finally, Carr should utilise Australia's unique position in the region, along with our new position on the UN Security Council, to play a leadership role in bringing the world's attention to the problems in West Papua.

For too long Australia supported the pro-military and anti-reform remnants of the Suharto regime. Now we have an opportunity to better align ourselves with the mainstream Indonesian human rights movement that recognises that the problems in West Papua do not have a military solution.

Tom Clarke is a spokesperson for the Human Rights Law Centre. ( He is on twitter: @TomHRLC