Henry Heritage | Pacific Fellow
The contentious West Papuan conflict has continuously proven to be the pre-eminent human rights catastrophe of the contemporary Pacific. The enduring violent saga between the Indonesian province of West Papua and the Indonesian government has recently advanced with the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) self-declaring a provisional and independent West Papuan government.
This bold initiative is the latest political effort to obtain a sovereign solution to the long-term conflict. The province of West Papua, which has been controlled by Indonesia since 1969, has been the incessant victim of a brutal and suppressive martial subjugation. This historic struggle for independence has been characterised by the Indonesian military’s exploitation of West Papuan civilians and the Indonesian government’s unlawful political suppression of the marginalised people.
In response to the newly announced provisional West Papuan government, the historical conflict is entering a new and precarious geopolitical era, in which three governments have a unique opportunity to impact the conflict and revise the suppressed position of West Papua.
The most significant dynamic in this contest is the unknown potential of the legally illegitimate, yet critically important, provisional government of West Papua. The government’s claim to control the Indonesian territory is undoubtedly a retaliation to their frivolous “special autonomy” status, which is set to expire in 2021.
It is important to note that this provisional government will not seek to achieve a diplomatic relationship with Jakarta in an attempt for peaceful cessation. It is an assertive effort to reclaim native land rights and political sovereignty for the province which has been continuously exploited for its abundant natural resources.
The internal formalisation of this government is yet to be realised, but the party should expect a forceful retaliation from Indonesia who has asserted its governance of the land through total control. The party’s existence is revolutionary, yet it will remain unrecognised, and there is a deep dependence on international allies for its success.
An essential actor in the proceeding developments of the West Papuan conflict is the large regional neighbour, Australia. Historically, the Pacific ally has played an inadequate role in the conflict and has profiled its stance with blatant inaction. Strategically, Australia has rigorously failed to aid the human-rights crisis of West Papua and has abided by a negligent mentality to stay neutral and not intervene.
There is no doubt that Indonesia’s great economic capacity and geopolitical significance in the Indo-Pacific is the driving force behind Australia’s refusal to act. In 2014, Australia and Indonesia signed the Framework for Security Cooperation in an attempt to salvage a fragmented partnership. Prior to this, relations had been branded with political conflict, provoked by events such as the 2013 phone-tapping scandal and the 2001 Tampa affair.
Australia’s choice to strategically refuse to intervene in West Papua and instead protect the valuable, yet precarious, Indonesia-Australia relationship does not come without political consequences. Specifically, the surrounding Pacific Island states are united in their support for immediate human rights assistance to West Papua. As a leading regional democracy and principal ally to the Pacific, Australia cannot continue to reap the geopolitical benefits of being a leader in the Pacific whilst ignoring the human rights abuse in West Papua and refusing to acknowledge its allies’ position.
Although it is inconceivable that Australia would recognise the provisional West Papuan government, this is a new opportunity for Australia to reassess its approach to the conflict. A diplomatic approach involving both an acknowledgement of Indigenous Papuan land rights and a formal condemnation of Indonesia’s martial rule would be an important revelation for Australia’s neglectful record in West Papua.
While it is unlikely that Australia would indirectly confront Indonesia through an approach like this, the recent developments in West Papua present a chance for responsible leadership. The conflict has re-entered the global spotlight, and the universal denunciation for Indonesia’s suppression provides Australia with an ideal opportunity to demonstrate international action.
The third potential actor in the next stage of the West Papuan conflict is President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration. Biden has revealed relatively little about specific actions under his foreign policy, but has affirmed a vision for restoring US global leadership in the form of advancing global security and a democratic alliance.
A commitment to reverting to traditional US multilateralism indicates real potential for US activity in the West Papuan conflict. It’s important to remember that only 20 years ago, the US had militarily forced Indonesia to uphold the independence vote of Timor Leste and relinquish control after a conflictive resistance.
A Biden-led US will be eager to display its renewed foreign policy approach as a leader of the global order. As a contending influence in the Pacific, making a statement by supporting West Papuan land rights and denouncing Indonesia’s human rights abuse would prove constructive for the US’ efforts in strengthening its Pacific relations. Not only this, but it would place increased pressure on Australia, as a US ally, to follow.
The US, along with Australia and the provisional West Papuan government, has a realistic capacity to challenge Indonesia and assert West Papuan sovereignty. This will not come without consequence. However, the importance of the Pacific’s most threatening human rights disaster is difficult to put a price on.
Henry Heritage is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs