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Will Australia take a stand on West Papua?

Recent commentary has compared the situation in West Papua to genocide and drawn parallels to East Timor. There seems to be little doubt that human rights abuses have occurred over a long period of time…

Three West Papuan activists ‘took refuge’ in Australia’s consulate in Bali on the weekend. What is the actual state of play in the troubled region? EPA/Bagus Indahono

Recent commentary has compared the situation in West Papua to genocide and drawn parallels to East Timor. There seems to be little doubt that human rights abuses have occurred over a long period of time. These violations were given a fresh airing over the weekend, after three West Papuan activists scaled the walls of the Australian consulate in Bali in an apparent attempt to draw attention to the situation in region.

These abuses have largely been the focus of civil society groups, with no countries or regional organisations willing to weigh into the issue. One reason is the lack of large diasporas in developed countries (such as the Timorese in Australia) and in a similar vein, a lack of historical engagement with the oppressed (again as in the case of Australia and the Timorese during World War Two).

The lack of action by governments raises question: who should or could do something about it? And what will the Abbott government do about the “problem” of West Papua?

The election of Tony Abbott spawned much conjecture about Australia’s foreign policy priorities. Unfortunately, we don’t have much evidence to go on. There is no question that the new government will not challenge any foreign policy orthodoxies, and the US alliance will remain the centrepiece of security policy.

But what about at the policy margins where there is more opportunities to manoeuvre? Commentators have delved into past speeches to try to piece together a picture of the government’s priorities on less central foreign policy issues, from West Papua to Fiji. Statements in opposition suggest that there may be some movement on the latter, but not the former. Too many factors inhibit radical change, not the least of which is history.

Those searching for a glimmer of hope in relation to a more activist role might cite John Howard’s reversal on East Timor as a precedent. However, opinion on the intervention in East Timor is divided. Howard’s 1998 letter to Indonesian president B. J. Habibie was unprecedented, and many argue that the final result - a referendum and independence - was unintended.

Howard is Abbott’s close confidant, but what would he say of the legacy of intervention? Howard has been less than enthusiastic about the intervention in public statements, insofar as it entailed great risk and imposed great costs in relation to fracturing relations - which is connected to the dramatic increase in unauthorised arrivals in the early 2000s. The outpouring of support during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami went a long way to rebuilding trust, as did signing the 2006 Lombok Treaty.

During the election, the Coalition’s foreign policy statement noted:

We will build on the Howard government’s Lombok Treaty with Indonesia to broaden an deepen security ties.

Further, the Rudd and Gillard government’s “inept” handling of offshore processing and live cattle exports were singled out, and repairing Australia’s relationship with Indonesia was highlighted as a key foreign policy priority. The new government is certainly “pivoting” to Jakarta.

Tony Abbott will again meet Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyno this week, but the issue of West Papua is almost certain not to rate a mention. EPA/Romeo Gacad

West Papua won’t even be an elephant in the room when Abbott meets Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the APEC Summit this week. Historically, Labor governments have used foreign policy to foster liberal ideals, although the Rudd and Gillard governments increasingly compromised these goals in the national interest (in the case of Burma, for instance). On his last visit to Indonesia, Rudd reiterated Australia’s support for Indonesian sovereignty and Abbott did likewise on his first visit to Indonesia.

Support for human rights has become more and more the purview of AusAID rather than the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The key difference with the Abbott government, therefore, is that it doesn’t claim to use foreign policy to support human rights. This is clear in the move to bring AusAID more closely under the control of DFAT, and to more tightly focus aid on the national interest (such as promoting trade).

So, the Coalition’s aid policy will continue to focus on capacity building in Indonesia, but it will continue to be responsive to Indonesian sensitivities about sovereignty in West Papua.

For the Coalition government, West Papua is not a “problem”. The Abbott government is unlikely to make any moves on West Papua that could threaten more pressing national interests, such as security and trade. Continuity will be the order of the day, and any appeal to liberal human rights norms will fade further into the background of the declaratory rhetoric.

Of course there will be embarrassing blips, such as the protestors “visiting” the consulate in Bali or the asylum seekers arriving by canoe in 2006, but the policy will not change unless a radical departure from the status quo can be painted as being in the national interest.

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22 Comments sorted by

  1. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Thanks Michael. You've correctly answered your own question "Will Australia take a stand on West Papua?" in the conditional negative. That is because economic issues and complex political expediencies of cross national empire politics will far outweigh any moral considerations these days. A disengaged, mis, ill and uninformed but well entertained electorate enables these surreptitious, joint human sacrificial agreements on the altar of profit.

    In referring to the brave and desperately dangerous…

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    1. Jack Bowers

      Learning Adviser

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Great post, Pat, and with Alice Leahy's you've covered all that needs to be said about our governments past and present.

      What disappoints me is the Australian people. The duopoly have no intention of responding to the rights of West Papuans, as they didn't abut East Timor despite some revisionary history doing the rounds at the moment. The bottom line is that until Australians stand up in numbers, the duopoly will continue the status quo. Australians are largely ignorant of this issue and the media rarely engages with it. Somehow we need to get more Australians writing to their federal politicians about this issue, demanding action.

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    2. Alice Leahy

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jack Bowers

      It is very disappointing, Ive been feeling a bit of a defeatist in light of recent events. I wonder if Australians will ever feel a sense of ownership of this issue, or if it will take a significant humanitarian crisis that spills over to Australia via 'boats' to change their perception. Or could such an event even catalyse an even more unsympathetic approach? In any event it is a horrible thing to feel that such a humanitarian crisis occurs to break the impasse in Australian public opinion, because it wil invariably mean more suffering for the Papuan people. I guess there is only so much we can do as individuals in our own respective spheres of influence, in raising awareness of the issue.

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  2. Markus Hagenauer

    logged in via email @yahoo.de

    Unfortunatelsy the Australian governement will not take a stand on West Papua, but luckily more and more Australians do.

    So Indonesias crimes against humanity can´t be ignored and tollerated forever.

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  3. Alice Leahy

    logged in via Facebook

    Another interesting take on this is the idea that you have alluded to, a question of who else should or could be responsible to take a stand on West Papua. To say that other governments and regional players have remained silent, is infact a misrepresentation. Only last week Vanuatu's PM stood infront of the UN imploring members to take a stance on HR abuses in West Papua.
    The regional Melanesian Spearhead Group, of which Indonesia is involved in an observer capacity, has also been asking the hard…

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    1. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to Alice Leahy

      Thanks for that informative post Alice. Jennifer Robertson (Geoffrey's and Kathy's daughter?) on ABC TV's Lateline last night highlighted the UN and international aspect of the urgency of this humanitarian rights issue. In light of your information on the Melanesian Spearhead Group, Vanuatu's stand in the UN in combination with renewed international human rights legal activist pressure on the UN this must surely be the way to help these people by going round the impasse/road block effectively formed…

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    2. Michael O'Keefe

      Senior Lecturer of International Relations at La Trobe University

      In reply to Alice Leahy

      Good point about Vanuatu and the MSG. There's certainly a follow up article that should be done on the diplomatic space afforded to small states and the pressure that can be applied by sub-regional actors. This is clearly evident in relation to the MSG and FLNKS, Fiji and the PIDF and PSIDS at the UN (e.g. signing the small arms treaty). Maybe you should pitch it?

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  4. Bruce Reyburn

    logged in via Facebook

    In the 21st century narrowly defined local and elite notions such as "the national interest" can no longer be assigned a self-privileging position when it comes to finding acceptable human standards in social and ecological matters of greater importance.

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  5. none at all

    none

    "And what will the Abbott government do about the “problem” of West Papua?"

    ...to which the corollary is:

    "And what will the Indonesian government do about the "problem" of Australian aborigines - and any other Australian matter in which they may wish to interfere?"

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    1. Alice Leahy

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to none at all

      Indeed, however has the Indonesian government been complicit through training of Australian military units that have continuing documented human rights abuses against Australia's indigenous people? Do these Australian military units perform these acts for the express purpose of suppressing Indigenous resistance to dispossession that has occurred on the basis of the mining operations of a joint venture mining operation of which an Indonesian multinational has a significant economic interest? Does…

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  6. Bill Budd

    Lecturer, Researcher

    Indonesia is NOT to blame for the oppression, the torture, the indiscriminate murder of women and children, the human rights abuses, the racist genocide of these amazingly resilient people who are viewed as little more than animals by their oppressors. It is not the fault of successive Australian governments or the US. Nor is the wholesale degradation of West Papuan forests, rivers and oceans the fault of Rio Tinto/Freeport.

    The blame for the terrible saga endured by generations of West Papuans…

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  7. Conor King
    Conor King is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Executive Director, IRU at La Trobe University

    The political realities take a hit from various posters on this article. However those realities seem to afflict all sides in these discussions.

    West Papua and East Timor in their names make clear that in both cases we are considering part of a geographic entity divided primarily by European colonial decisions. Throughout the lengthy debate about East Timor since the mid 1970s I have rarely if ever read about West Timor and why its people's naturally belong in Indonesia but the East Timorese do not. It was only this century I learned that East Timor includes an enclave in West Timor - so the Island is in three parts. Perhaps this reflects underlying cultural differences but I have not read about this.

    West Papua on the surface would seem better aligned with PNG. I do not know enough about what differences if any there are between West and East on the New Guinea island, greater than those within each area.

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  8. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    I don't wish to rain on the author's parade and largely concur with his analysis and especially his miserable conclusions.

    However, the article illustrates the essential truth of the saying that one's pith is in one's postscript...or, as the case may be, so categorically understated as to draw attention to the precise reverse of events as they unfold on our doorstep.

    I refer, of course, to the photo-caption 'Tony Abbott will again meet Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhyono this week…

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  9. robert roeder
    robert roeder is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    The plight of the West Papuan people has been off the Australian agenda for decades, we are largely responsible for handing it over to the Indonesians 50 years ago. Since that time 100,000's have been killed or disappeared by the hands of the Indonesian military, Australian politicians as a group have ignored this issue and have refused to discuss the human rights violations which are on going. Papuans are of Melanesian decent and are culturally different from Indonesians.
    This year Jennifer Robinson gave a talk at the Sydney Opera House and introduced Benny Wenda who is an activist for independence, this talk became a TED video, it can be viewed on their site. What a inspiring person Jeniffer is.
    This issue is long overdue for a public debate here in Australia, it has been like John Cleese's comment in Faulty Towers " don't mention the war ", the three monkeys typify our response.

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    1. Bill Budd

      Lecturer, Researcher

      In reply to Ahmad Khumaidi

      I haven't Ahmad, my father worked there in the late 60's (West Irian). Do you feel it might influence my opinion if I had visited West Papua?

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    2. Ahmad Khumaidi

      Law Postgraduate Student at Flinders University

      In reply to Bill Budd

      I am not sure whether the visit may influence your opinion or not. But I think it is a better way to understand more about the issue on West Papua. (Most of the time) seeing is believing Bill:)

      Do you think there is a possibility of massive gold mountain, or other precious natural resources, in West Papua?

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    3. Bill Budd

      Lecturer, Researcher

      In reply to Ahmad Khumaidi

      Yes, I agree Ahmad, seeing is believing. Unfortunately there has been a long standing travel ban for foreign journalists, NGOs and Human Rights Observers so we are not really able to visit West Papua to either 'see or believe'.

      Fortunately technology provides more than enough evidence for the atrocities and human rights abuses that occur with terrible regularity and you can visit any of these sites below to see and believe for yourself.

      http://westpapua.net/
      - Organisi Papua Merdeka

      www.westpapuamedia.info

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    4. Ahmad Khumaidi

      Law Postgraduate Student at Flinders University

      In reply to Bill Budd

      About the travel ban, sad but true Bill. I cannot have more opinion in this matter.

      Thank you for the web links.

      I can see most of them come from one side of the pros & cons. Do you believe that independence is the only solution for West Papua issue?

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    5. Bill Budd

      Lecturer, Researcher

      In reply to Ahmad Khumaidi

      Perhaps like you I acknowledge that the situation is far more complex. Independence is essential for West Papua but this will provide no practical solution in the short term and would simply exacerbate many of the current problems in West Papua, many of which have been created by 50 years of occupation.

      What is required immediately is intervention to provide security to West Papuan people and to demonstrate the world outside does care and they have a future!

      Security for West Papua needs to be provided by a body that has no political or economic conflict of interest in West Papua. Only the UN can provide this, definitely not Australia, Indonesia or the US.

      I don't believe there is 'two sides' to the debate regarding West Papua, only 'fact or fiction', truth and lies'.

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    6. Ahmad Khumaidi

      Law Postgraduate Student at Flinders University

      In reply to Bill Budd

      It may be too far to think about sending the UN 'peace keeper army' to West Papua. And if there is such intervention, it will be impossible to keep the US (and Australia?) away from it. In this regards, by not involving Indonesia in such intervention, this means the UN already criminalised the country for an issue that is still, to me, debatable. In a different setting, for Indonesia, this can be the next East Timor case. In fact, historically, Indonesia's 'invasion' over West Papua (and East Timor…

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