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Australia cannot ignore rights abuses in West Papua

By Rachael Bongiorno - posted Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The visit to Australia this past week of exiled West Papuan independence leader, Benny Wenda, has brought renewed attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in West Papua.

Wenda, now based in the UK, came to Australia as part of a global tour. His message is simple: The international community should respond to West Papua's cries for freedom.

West Papauns are seeking an end to the human rights abuses, an end to Indonesia's illegal occupation and an opening up of the province to foreign scrutiny by media and human rights organisations. Despite being one of our closest Melanesian neighbours, only around 300 km's north of Australia, many Australians have little knowledge of West Papua, its people, culture and history.


Wenda's visit has illuminated both Australia's role in supporting the 50-year colonisation, as well as our country's potential role in ameliorating it. As a country priding itself on upholding human rights - Australia has a moral, political and economic imperative to respond to West Papua's pleas.

Australia has consistently put its strategic interests ahead of recognising the rights of the West Papuans. In 1962 it was cold war fears encouraging Australia to support the effective transfer of West Papua from Dutch colonisation to Indonesian, through a U.S drafted treaty. It also supported the 1969 referendum that solidified the occupation- despite it being widely criticised as a sham vote.

The recent comments by our foreign affairs minister who stated, "both sides of Australian politics-fully recognised Indonesian sovereignty over the Papuan provinces"- demonstrates the legacy of this strategic support, which comes before any human rights concerns. However, as Jennifer Robinson, the human rights lawyer accompanying Wenda on his tour, pointed out - as a country which recently got a seat on the UN Security Council on account of its human rights based foreign policy, Australia cannot continue to ignore the human rights abuses on our doorstep.

It is estimated that as many as 500,000 Papuans have been killed since Indonesia took control. Research from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney has even questioned whether the situation for West Papuans constitutes genocide.

The Asian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Survival International continue to receive credible reports of human rights violations committed by the Indonesian forces. These accusations include torture, rape, extrajudicial killings, imprisonment and unnecessary and excessive use of force on peaceful demonstrators.

According to Independence leader, Victor Yeimo who is based in West Papua, in 2012 twenty-two young pro-independence activists were shot by Indonesian forces and a further fifty-five behind bars. Last week alone saw five activists, arrested and tortured, then released without charge.


It may come as a surprise to many Australians that this is not simply a remote and irrelevant conflict on the other side of the world. Apart from our geographic proximity, we are directly implicated in this occupation and these human rights abuses through our military and economic investments in the resource rich Papuan provinces.

Much of Indonesian and global interests in West Papua are based on its vast natural resources, exploited for Gold, Copper, Oil and logging- and to this, Australia is not immune. The largest contributor to Indonesia's GDP, their largest taxpayer and a significant source of revenue for the military is the Grasberg mine, the largest gold and copper mine in the world. Although this is owned by the U.S company Freeport McMoran, British-Australian Rio Tinto has a 60-40 joint venture agreement with Freeport, which entitles it to a significant share of production. With nearly all of Australia's financial institutions investing in Rio Tinto, we are implicated here too.

Additionally, Australia's tax payers money, through the AFP, helps provide financial and operational support to one of the sections of the Indonesian security forces, known as Detachment 88- even though these forces have been linked to crackdowns on independence movements in West Papua, including torture and extrajudicial killings.

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About the Author

Rachael Bongiorno is a Melbourne based freelance journalist. She tweets as @R_Bongiorno.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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