Australian human rights lawyer welcomes Papua New Guinea support of West Papuans

Posted On 07 Feb 2015
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A prominent Australian human rights lawyer has welcomed a statement of support for West Papuans by Papua New Guinea prime minister Peter O’Neill, saying it has “been a long time coming”.

Mr O’Neill said he would speak out on behalf of Melanesians in Indonesian West Papua, saying it was “time for PNG to speak about the oppression of our people there”.

Jennifer Robinson, a long-time advocate for the independence movement in the Indonesian province, said Mr O’Neill’s change of heart on the human rights abuses in the province was a huge development.

“This is a very big turnaround – to go from trying to shut down the raising of the West Papuan flag (in 2013) to speak openly about supporting West Papuan’s oppression and the oppression of Melanesians in West Papua,” she said.

“This is a really big development and I think it’s a testament to the ongoing campaign and a testament to the strength of the movement and the support on the ground within the population of Papua New Guinea.”

She said relations with Indonesia had previously meant the government in PNG remained silent on human rights issues in West Papua, despite vocal support from other Melanesian leaders including in Vanuatu.

“As we saw in Vanuatu, there’s been vocal criticism by local voters in response to government’s failure to raise West Papua within the Melanesian region and I think Papua New Guinea and the prime minister is perhaps starting to feel that democratic pressure as we see the greater penetration of social media and more people talking about this issue,” Ms Robinson said.

“It’s a very welcome development and one that’s been a long time coming.”

I think they’ll be very concerned and they ought to be: this shows that Indonesia cannot keep a lid on the West Papuan movement for independence and their claim for self-determination. Human rights lawyer, Jennifer Robinson

The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), headed by exiled independence activist Benny Wenda, applied for membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group earlier this week.

The group consists of the Melanesian countries of Fiji, PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and a group representing the indigenous Kanak people in New Caledonia.

Ms Robinson said there had been reports Indonesia had set up a task force to investigate membership application.

“I think they’ll be very concerned and they ought to be: this shows that Indonesia cannot keep a lid on the West Papuan movement for independence and their claim for self-determination,” Ms Robinson said.

“(Indonesian president Joko Widodo) has come into power and promised a change for West Papua but what we’re seeing is status quo.

“Melanesian leadership is starting to see that there isn’t going to be a change and are standing up. It’s time Indonesia actually puts this on the table and starts talking about how to find a dignified response to this problem,” she said.

The head of Indonesia’s National Commission of Human Rights, Hafid Abbas, said Indonesia did not want to create a diplomatic problem with its neighbour, but said he hoped Indonesia’s leaders would ask PNG for clarification on Mr O’Neill’s comments.

“PNG is our neighbour, we should… cooperate in all aspects of our development. I hope that president Joko Widodo and vice president (Jusuf) Kalla and foreign minister Retno (Marsudi) will visit Papua New Guinea to make clarification because as a neighbour we have to feel a much stronger confidence to intervene in our internal issue,” he said.

He said Indonesia was only a new democracy, having ousted an authoritarian regime just 16 years ago, and said it had a “great commitment to promote human rights”.