Robert Courts MP Speech on West Papua in UK Parliament
May 15, 2019
The following speech was given by Conservative MP, Robert Courts, to open the first-ever House of Commons debate on West Papua.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in West Papua.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to have been granted this extremely important debate about human rights in West Papua. As I understand it, this is the first ever debate in the House of Commons on this topic. I am pleased to welcome colleagues from across the House who have come to support the debate, and I am grateful to them.
There have been a couple of brief debates in the other place over the years, but this is the first time that we, as elected representatives, have debated West Papua, despite having held some 3,455 debates in the last 50 years on issues great and small, of national and local significance. That is illustrative of the lack of attention this issue has received, when it ought to have had attention both at home and from the international community. I hope that today, in our small way, we can start to shine a light on the West Papuan cause and to give a voice to the people of West Papua.
I referenced the last 50 years, and there is a significance to that, as 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called Act of Free Choice. That Act is a defining moment in the West Papuan story and forms the context within which the current situation in West Papua must be viewed. I will set out some of that context and give a brief history of West Papua, before discussing the current situation. I will conclude with two key actions I suggest the UK Government consider taking to help improve the human rights situation in West Papua.
West Papua is the western half of New Guinea, which is the second largest island on earth and one of many thousands of south Pacific islands that are collectively known as Melanesia. Papuan people have inhabited the West Papua region for over 40,000 years. It was slowly drawn into the Dutch sphere of influence, and by the end of the 19th century the Dutch had established permanent administrative centres in the region as part of the Dutch East Indies.
When Indonesian nationalists declared independence from the Dutch empire in 1945, they included West Papua in the list of territories that would form the newly born country. That declaration sparked a four-year-long war between the Indonesians and the Dutch, which ended in 1949, when Indonesia was granted international recognition as an independent state at The Hague roundtable conference. However, this only heightened the divisions that existed on the status of the West Papua region. Indonesia argued that the region should be included in its new independent state, but the Dutch refused to cede the territory. At this point, I ought to mention that the West Papua region is home to the largest gold mine and the second largest copper mine in the world.
No compromise was found in the years that followed Indonesian independence, leading to a further fraying of tensions between Indonesia and the Netherlands. That led to Indonesia building up its military capacity, largely from weapons acquired from the Soviet Union. In the conflict that ensued, the United States, although originally supportive of the Dutch cause, eventually changed its position to ensure that Indonesia would not be driven towards the Soviet Union, in the context of the cold war.
Talks between Indonesia and the Netherlands followed in 1962, with the UN acting as the official mediating power. This resulted in the signing of the New York agreement, according to which the administration of West Papua would be assigned to the United Nations for a minimum of seven months, before being passed to Indonesia. Crucially, article 18 of that agreement stipulated:
“Indonesia will make arrangements, with the assistance and participation of the United Nations Representative and his staff, to give the people of the territory the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice.”
It went on:
“Such arrangements will include…formulations of the questions in such a way as to permit the inhabitants to decide (a) whether they wish to remain with Indonesia; or (b) whether they wish to sever their ties with Indonesia.”
Article 18 also noted that the consultation had to ensure the
“eligibility of all adults, male and female, not foreign nationals to participate in the act of self-determination to be carried out in accordance with international practice.”
It is difficult to say that what happened in 1969—the so-called Act of Free Choice—was carried out in accordance with international practice or captured the true democratic will of the West Papuan people. Despite the New York agreement explicitly requiring Indonesia to
“guarantee fully the rights, including the rights of free speech, free movement and of assembly, of the inhabitants of the area”,
that guarantee was not fulfilled, because Papuan political parties were banned at the time of the Act of Free Choice.
A one person, one vote system, which is international practice, was not granted. Instead 1,025 representatives were selected by the Indonesian military to vote on behalf of the Papuan people. The representatives voted unanimously in favour of Papua becoming part of Indonesia. However, numerous reports from foreign observers and Papuans suggest that it was not a free consultation. It is claimed that those who were selected for the vote were blackmailed into voting against independence by means of threats of violence against their person and their families. Representatives were taken away from their families and communities for several weeks before the consultation.
Diplomatic cables from the US ambassador to Indonesia reported at the time that the Act of Free Choice in West Papua
“is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained.”
The ambassador went on to say that the Indonesians
“cannot and will not permit any resolution other than continued inclusion”
of West Papua
“in Indonesia. Dissident activity is likely to increase as the climax is reached but the Indonesian armed forces will be able to contain it and, if necessary, suppress it.”
The ambassador continued by saying that the Indonesian armed forces had “no intention of allowing” West Papuan choice
“other than incorporation into Indonesia. Separation is unthinkable.”
British diplomats in the region took similar views and drew similar conclusions at the time.
In a House of Lords debate in 2004, the then Foreign Office Minister, Baroness Symons, made this admission in responding to the then Bishop of Oxford:
“He is right to say that there were 1,000 handpicked representatives and that they were largely coerced into declaring for inclusion in Indonesia.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 December 2004; Vol. 667, c. 1084.]
I would be interested to hear in due course from the Minister whether that is still the position of the UK Government, although I see no reason for it to have changed at this stage.
After making that admission, Baroness Symons went on to say that these things had occurred many decades ago and that, rather than dwelling on the past, it was important to look to the future and improve matters in the here and now. While I have some sympathy with that sentiment, it does perhaps miss the key point—that in the eyes of many West Papuans, the fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the so-called Act of Free Choice undermine the very legitimacy of Indonesian rule in West Papua.
We are now in the 50th anniversary year of the Act of Free Choice, which is understandably seen as an act of great injustice by the people of West Papua, who refer to it ironically as the “Act of No Choice”. In the past 50 years, the West Papuan people have been subjected to serious human rights violations, which have only fuelled and heightened that sense of injustice. Those human rights violations include the repression of free speech and peaceful assembly, impediments to a free press, arbitrary arrest, and even cases of torture and killings, as we have heard.
The human rights abuses in West Papua are in large part down to the fact that the region is de facto controlled by the Indonesian military. The University of Sydney has estimated that around 15,000 troops are currently deployed in the region. When human rights violations occur, there are inadequate systems of redress for Papuans, so violations often go unpunished. An Amnesty International report on West Papua noted that there is a lack of effort to investigate accusations of human rights violations and to try before civilian courts police officials accused of violations. Furthermore, it noted that allegations of human rights abuses committed by the military in West Papua often go unchecked or are dealt with before military tribunals with no transparency, leaving many victims of human rights violations awaiting justice.
We will all be aware of the case from earlier this year, which we heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). Footage emerged of Indonesian police interrogating a young Papuan boy, who was on the floor and in handcuffs while officers wrapped a large snake around him. The child was alleged to have stolen a mobile phone. In the video, he is heard screaming in fear as officers laugh and push the snake’s head towards his face. In responding to the incident, a UN panel of human rights experts stated that it
“reflects a widespread pattern of violence, alleged arbitrary arrests and detention as well as methods amounting to torture used by the Indonesian police and military in Papua”.
They went on to explain that those tactics are often used against indigenous Papuans and that the incident is “symptomatic” of the discrimination West Papuans face from the Indonesian authorities.
Papuans are regularly arrested for peacefully expressing their opinions on the political status of West Papua, including through peaceful demonstrations or attending meetings in which the matter is discussed. The simple act of raising the symbol of West Papuan independence, the Morning Star flag, carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Pro-independence political leaders have routinely faced persecution and even assassination at the hands of the Indonesian authorities.
At this point, I would like to introduce someone who, I am pleased to say, is in attendance today—Benny Wenda, leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, who came to see me recently, along with my constituent Richard Samuelson, who was the first person to bring the situation in West Papua to my attention, and his fiancée Elaine, who are also in attendance. I thank them.
I pay tribute to Richard for bringing this issue to my attention; without going off on too much of a tangent, it shows one of the greatest things about our parliamentary system. Many of us, when we raise issues in the House, do so because they are brought to our attention by constituents in our surgeries, and this is one such case. Richard and Benny made a powerful, moving case to me, and I am only too pleased to raise this issue before Parliament today.
I make that point during this debate as a reminder of the democratic rights and freedoms we enjoy in this country. Richard and Benny could come to see me and make their point freely, knowing they would not be persecuted and that their representative could and would take up the matter on their behalf. Those are rights and freedoms that, sadly, are not enjoyed by too many people around the world.
Benny’s story would bring a tear to the stoniest eye. Benny’s father was, in fact, one of the representatives hand-picked in 1969 to vote in the Act of Free Choice. Benny says that he still remembers his father telling him how he had been threatened and told that he and his whole family would be killed if he voted for Papuan independence.
During our meeting, Benny told me the tragic story, which he says is permanently fixed in his memory, of when, at just three years old, he saw many of his fellow villagers, including most of his family, killed during an Indonesian military operation. Years later, Benny became the leader of the Papuan student independence movement. After being imprisoned, he was able to escape to Oxford, where he was duly granted political asylum by the United Kingdom.
When I met Benny, he expressed with great emotion the gratitude he felt to the United Kingdom, and he spoke with admiration of our values of freedom and the rule of law—principles he said he was determined to see his people in West Papua enjoy. Benny was the one who, earlier this year, presented a petition to the United Nations calling for an independence referendum in West Papua. The petition contained the signatures and thumbprints of some 1.8 million West Papuans, which represents approximately 70% of the entire population.
I turn now to the Minister. What can the UK Government do? I have explained the history and set out the present situation. The question is, what can we do to ensure that the human rights situation improves in West Papua and that the future is brighter for the Papuan people? I accept that the United Kingdom’s power is limited, but I think there are two key areas where we could—and should—apply diplomatic pressure.
We should not downplay our influence. The United Kingdom is a close and important friend of Indonesia. A recent BBC poll found that over 65% of Indonesians take a positive view of the UK’s influence, making Indonesia the country with the second most favourable perception of the United Kingdom in Asia. Therefore, we have a role to play in having these conversations with our Indonesian friends, difficult though they may be.
The first thing I ask the Minister to consider doing is to push for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua. That should not be controversial; indeed, in a February 2018 meeting with the then UN High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Indonesian President Jokowi invited his office to visit West Papua. Sadly, some 15 months on, that visit has not taken place, and the former UN High Commissioner expressed concern about that in his update to the 38th session of the Human Rights Council.
The Foreign Office, and our representatives in the United Nations, should encourage their Indonesian counterparts to honour that invitation and permit the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua. The UN High Commissioner’s assessment of human rights in West Papua will be critical to informing the world of the situation on the ground and bringing about positive change in the region. I ask the Minister today if he would please commit to raising the issue of this invitation with his Indonesian counterpart and encouraging them to honour it.
The second area where I would suggest the United Kingdom could have a positive influence is in pushing for increased press freedom in West Papua and particularly for greater access for foreign journalists to the region. At present, foreign journalists are essentially banned from West Papua. The few who are granted access are closely monitored by the Indonesian military and by no means allowed to report freely. The BBC’s Indonesia editor, Rebecca Henschke, was granted a special permit to report on a malnutrition crisis in the region last year but was expelled shortly after arriving after posting tweets that “hurt the feelings” of soldiers.
It is therefore unsurprising that Indonesia ranks 124th out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index of the press freedom charity Reporters Without Borders. The charity concludes that President Jokowi did not keep his campaign promise to address media freedom in West Papua, with his presidency instead seeing drastic restrictions on access for foreign journalists and growing violence against local journalists who seek to report abuses by the Indonesian military.
A free press nurtures free societies. Now, more than ever, we must defend it. That was the message of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last week as we marked World Press Freedom Day. Never has that been more true than in the case of West Papua. We simply must ensure that journalists are able to report freely in the region, shining a light on wrongdoings when they occur, and generally scrutinising the actions of the authorities in West Papua. Ensuring that that happens will go a long way towards helping to protect the human rights of the West Papuan people.
The UK is in an ideal position to take action on this issue. Last month, the UK Government announced that Amal Clooney had been made a special envoy on media freedom by the FCO and would head up a panel of legal experts looking to repeal anti-press freedom laws abroad and ensure that journalists across the world are free to report the truth. I therefore urge the Minister and the Foreign Secretary to ensure that this important panel, when it is established, investigates the situation in West Papua as a top priority. The panel, which is a wonderful initiative, can look at the restrictive laws that the Indonesian Government have put in place in West Papua, which have essentially created a media blackout in the region, and press the Indonesian Government to repeal them, enabling a free press, transparency and accountability in West Papua.
The simple fact is that the human rights situation in West Papua cannot improve until President Jokowi delivers on his promise to allow greater press freedom in the region, which has thus far failed to happen. The panel therefore represents a golden opportunity to hold the Indonesian Government to their promises, ensuring that their warm words turn into hard action. Ultimately, a free media can prevail in West Papua, and I therefore hope that the Minister will assure me that he will make strong representations to the Foreign Secretary and Amal Clooney that West Papua must be an area of focus for the Defend Media Freedom panel.
In conclusion, I leave the Minister with two modest requests from myself—and two from hon. Members—which, if followed through and achieved, could be immensely significant. They ought not to be controversial, as they essentially ask the Indonesian Government to honour promises they have already made. The first request is that the Minister encourages his counterparts in the Indonesian Government to honour that February 2018 invitation to the Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua, and the second is that he ensures that the new FCO panel for press freedom investigates the situation in West Papua as a top priority.
If we can ensure the free access of international media and independent human rights observers to West Papua, we will have taken an enormous step forward in protecting the human rights of the Papuan people, putting the region on the road towards a more free and prosperous future. I hope the Minister will be able to assure me and all others who have attended the debate—I note that the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua, the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), is here, and I welcome him—that he will take up these issues on behalf of the people of West Papua, whose cries for help have for far too long gone unanswered. The debate has helped give a voice to the voiceless. I hope the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be able to help too.
You can find the full debate on ‘West Papua: Human Rights’ here.