Human Rights in Papua – some remarks

Conference “Autonomy for Papua – Opportunity or Illusion?”, 04-05.06.2003

by John Rumbiak


John Rumbiak

Photo: Marianne Klute

In response to Papuans’ increasingly visible and vocal demands for independence in the post-Suharto period, there have been a series of initiatives aimed at resolving the four-decades-old conflict in Papua peacefully. The first of these efforts was the 1999 National Dialogue on Irian Jaya, a process of dialogue with Terms of Reference signed by Indonesia’s State Secretary and Papuan representatives. Due to a lack of political will on the part of the Habibie Government, that process lapsed shortly after a February 1999 meeting in Jakarta between then-President B.J. Habibie and 100 Papuan leaders. A push by the Government to grant Papua Special Autonomy status ensued, and in 2000, then-President Abdurrahman Wahid changed the name of the province from Irian Jaya to Papua as a symbolic step towards concrete constructive change.

In 2001, the Government of Indonesia enacted the Law No. 21/2001 on Special Autonomy for the Province of Papua. In doing so, the civilian Government in Jakarta acknowledged that its centralized policies and development strategies for Papua have not led to justice, improved welfare, law enforcement, or respect for human rights in Papua, especially for indigenous Papuans. The Central Government also recognized that human rights violations, the denial of the fundamental rights of indigenous people, and the presence of different perspectives regarding the history of Papua’s integration into the Republic of Indonesia are serious problems that need to be settled.

With the enactment of the Special Autonomy Law for Papua, many observers believed that the human rights situation would improve and that legal mechanisms for greater human rights protection would be developed. These hopes and expectations have not been met, and until now, basic rights continue to be denied. First among these is the denial of the Papuans’ right to self-determination. This denial is at the core of the human rights situation.

Second, social and economic rights are denied. The traditional practices and long-standing livelihoods of indigenous Papuans have been devastated and destroyed by private investors who rely on the Indonesian military to enforce their plundering of Papuan lands and natural resources. Indeed, a lieutenant commander of Indonesia’s elite American-trained Special Forces described for an ELSHAM human-rights investigator in 1998 what role the military played in establishing and protecting natural-resource operations and other development projects. He said: “The military is here to make sure that investors can come in.”

Third, a culture of impunity for human rights violations by the Indonesian military and police continues. These actors, whose modus operandi is based on the overwhelming use of violence, continue to operate without accountability throughout Papua. The November 2001 assassination by Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) of moderate and respected Papuan community leader Theys Eluay is a reminder that the Indonesian military’s leadership – those who issue the orders to engage in deadly violence against civilians – remain free of the hand of justice. They do what they like, when they like. In fact, impunity is not a problem in Papua alone, but exists throughout the whole of Indonesia. It is everywhere.

Fourth, racism and xenophobia fundamentally influence the human rights situation in Papua. The Indonesian authorities regard indigenous Papuans as ‘primitive’ people who must be ‘civilized’. Government policies and the practices of private entities such as corporations operating in Papua reflect this deep bias. Indeed, racism – the denigration of Papuans due to their skin colour – forms the basis for actions by the military to murder, rape and torture Papuans, treating them worse than animals. Because of their racist beliefs, many Indonesian authorities are able to dehumanize Papuans, leading to committal of heinous acts against Papuans at all levels of society.

Indeed, a recent study by researchers at Yale Law School states that “… throughout the past forty years, the Indonesian Government has shown a callous disregard – and, at times, an intentional and specific malevolence – for the basic human rights and human dignity of the people of West Papua.” 1 The researchers conclude that the Indonesian Government’s actions – perpetrated in large part by the Indonesian armed forces – against the Papuan people constitute crimes against humanity and may rise to the level of genocide. 2

In addition to these violent actions against Papuans’ physical well-being, the Government has also failed to promote and protect Papuans’ rights to education and health. Indeed, the state does not fulfil its duty for the welfare of its Papuan citizens. According to new studies, there are 1,263 people living with HIV in Papua, including 539 who have contracted AIDS. Papuan cases represent roughly 30 percent of the total number of the 3,782 known HIV/AIDS cases throughout Indonesia although the people of Papua represent only some 1 percent of the country’s total population. According to Constan Karma, Chairman of the Commission for Handling of AIDS (KPA), “… if no action is taken, we fear the number of people with HIV/AIDS [in Papua] will reach 126,000 in the next decade.” 3

Other health threats to Papuans include infant mortality, which the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimates to be 117 deaths for every 1,000 children under the age of one – the highest infant mortality rate in the world. This compares with an Indonesian national average of 50 deaths for every 1,000 infants. According to the 2001 United Nations Development Program Human Development Index, Papua is also Indonesia’s second poorest province, after West Nusa Tenggara. Unicef’s Papua-based director, Kiyoshi Nakamitsu, attributed the unparalleled infant mortality rate in Papua to malnutrition amongst women and children due to poverty and to poor access to health care services, particularly in rural areas. 4

As I mentioned earlier, the promises for creating new legal mechanisms and infrastructure for promoting and protecting human rights in Papua have not been kept. The Law on Special Autonomy includes a provision calling for the establishment in Papua of branches of Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), the Human Rights Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 5 None of these mechanisms has yet seen the light of day. For now, they remain only as nice aspirations. In the event that the mentioned mechanisms are actually created and begin to operate, we must recognize now that, due to their very structures, they are not able to tackle the core of the human rights problem in Papua. Indeed, they are limited by the Indonesian Human Rights Courts Law (Law No. 26/2000), which provides for consideration of cases dating only from after its enactment, i.e. November 2000 – unless the national Parliament (DPR) proposes the establishment of an ad hoc Human Rights Court for a special case of gross human rights violations perpetrated before that time. In addition, the Indonesian courts’ ability to deliver justice in cases of human rights violations is limited by the courts’ lack of independence from the Indonesian Government and military.

The current situation in Aceh, with its legally allowed military operation, is a huge challenge for Papua. It is an example of and possible precursor for what the Indonesian military, with the acquiescence of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Central Government, could carry out in Papua as well. In fact, for the Indonesian military, Papua has long served as its ‘killings grounds’ (makarim) as well as the military’s economic base for legal and illegal fund-raising schemes including extorting ‘protection money’ from local, national and transnational companies, illegal logging, and trafficking in stolen goods and endangered species. Indonesia’s culture of impunity and weak legal system allow the military to operate like this.

As the Indonesian military seeks to re-entrench its political and economic power structures in opposition to the democratic reforms promoted by civil society under the post-Suharto presidents Habibie and Wahid, Jakarta’s approach to Papua – and indeed, to human rights and justice concerns throughout Indonesia – has reverted to repression and criminal activity. The administration of current President Megawati Sukarnoputri has offered the Indonesian military weak and malleable civilian leadership which has proved itself incapable of continuing the hard-won democratic reform program that Megawati’s own political party once championed.

The result for policy towards Papua is that the Indonesian military is calling the shots, and Jakarta has shown no indication that it is serious about pursuing implementation of Special Autonomy. Indeed, as an illuminating and unprecedented opinion survey by the International Foundation for Election Systems demonstrated, only 17 percent of Papuans surveyed were aware of the Special Autonomy Law indicating that there has been hardly any socialization of the existence, meaning or implications of Special Autonomy in Papua. 6

Indeed, Megawati’s Government, at the Indonesian military’s urging, has blocked implementation of the Special Autonomy Law, already passed by the Indonesian Parliament (DPR) and signed by the President, by failing to issue the required implementing regulations. In addition, the Central Government has rejected Papuan Governor Salosa’s proposal for establishing the Papua People’s Assembly (Majelis Rakyat Papua or the MRP), as mandated by the Law, thereby preventing the Provincial Government of Papua from moving forward with implementation of the Law. The MRP is a particularly important component of the infrastructure needed to make real Papuans’ rights to political participation. It would provide an important forum for the perspectives of people whose voices typically are not represented in the national and provincial parliaments – Papua’s traditional (adat) communities, women and others.

Instead, on January 27, 2003, Megawati issued Presidential Instruction (Inpres) No. 1/2003 ordering the division of Papua into three separate provinces. This decision was taken in violation of the Special Autonomy Law, and as so many before it, was taken without consulting the Papuan people, as though they did not exist. The move has created more confusion and escalated tensions in Papua – provoking widespread popular demonstrations in opposition to the order.

So that is the status of current development regarding the Special Autonomy Law for Papua. That said, the Law leaves out a very important sector of Papuan society – the migrants who have settled in Papua from other islands. We must still address the rights of migrants to Papua, which are not considered in the Special Autonomy Law. The status of these migrants will be an issue in the future. They have a right to live in Papua, and that is an important topic that we have to discuss.

1 West Papua is the name selected in 1961 by elected Papuan representatives to the New Guinea Council and is used today by most Papuans.
2 Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School, Genocide in West Papua? Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, April 2003 (draft, cited with permission of the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic).
3 Cf. Nethy Dharma Somba, “HIV/AIDS cases in Papua reach alarming level”, in: The Jakarta Post, 27/5/2003.
4 Cf. Nethy Dharma Somba, “Unicef concerned over high Papua infant mortality, AIDS”, in: The Jakarta Post, 14/6/2003.
5 In fact, the draft version of the Law provided for the creation in Papua of its own provincial human rights commission.
6 Papua Public Opinion Survey, Indonesia, International Foundation for Election Systems, February 2003. Cf.

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