Trans-boundary Diplomatic Efforts for Papua: ULMWP, the MSG, and the Notion of Sovereignty


Indonesia’s foreign policy has always been imbued by the free and active (bebas-aktif) doctrine ever since the concept was originally introduced by the country’s first vice president, Mohammad Hatta, in 1948 (Parameswaran, 2014). The doctrine entails Indonesia’s non-alignment to a particular axis of power while seeking dynamic roles in preserving peace and stability in world affairs (Parameswaran, 2014; Panjaitan, Mahroza, & Widodo, 2020; Santoso & Marnani, 2020). Since its inception, every president of the republic has adopted the free and active doctrine, from the authoritarian regime led by Soeharto to the transitional democracy period of Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Soekaroputri, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and incumbent president Joko Widodo (Santoso & Marnani, 2020).

However, the doctrine is neither liberating nor active in relation to the issues of human rights violations in Indonesia’s easternmost region, Papua. At several multilateral conferences, Indonesian delegates deny any claims of abuses in Papua raised by other States’ delegates. Most recently, in September 2020, during the United Nations General Assembly seventy-fifth session, a representative of Indonesia’s permanent mission to the United Nations, Silvany Austin Pasaribu, dismissed a call from Vanuatu delegates regarding the atrocities in Papua and the call for an independent fact-finding mission (Mulyanto, 2020; Septiari, 2020). A similar rebuke was also given by Indonesia three years earlier when delegates from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu demanded an investigation of human rights abuses in Papua during the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly (Abdulsalam, 2017). Thus, Indonesia’s constant denial about human rights abuses in Papua has become a highly standardized and repetitive ritual that adjourns to the nature of multilateral conferences (Bolewski, 2007). One may as well argue that such a strategy perfectly displays the ineffectiveness of conference diplomacy in responding to issues of human rights violations.

Consequently, the failure of the Indonesian government to acknowledge its violent domestic policies in Papua on multilateral conferences triggers non-State actors’ involvement in transboundary diplomatic activities (Bolewski, 2007). Civil society actors with a focus on Papuan issues take an active role in pushing forward the human rights agenda through various canals and gradually become a more reliable source of information for the international audience. One example is the political campaigns initiated and sustained by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) in promoting the Papuan agenda in numerous multilateral conferences, including within the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), an intergovernmental organization established by States in the South Pacific having substantial Melanesian populations, and the United Nations (Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2017).

This article analyzes the role of ULMWP in the MSG in bringing up the issues of human rights violations in Papua and how, despite its robust campaigns, the current landscape of multilateral conferences posits a threat to ULMWP’s calls for justice and accountability. The article first presents the human rights situation in Papua from the 1960s until the present day. Such information is relevant to give readers some background about the gravity of State-sponsored crimes in Papua and to understand the rationales behind ULMWP’s transboundary diplomatic strategies. Once the facts about the atrocities are established, this article describes the emergence of ULMWP and how, lastly, ULMWP’s transboundary diplomatic efforts are challenged, and to some extent endangered, by the notion of sovereignty deeply embedded within today’s multilateral conferences, particularly in the context of MSG.

A Long History of Abuses in Papua

When Indonesia was granted independence in 1945 by its colonizers, the Dutch and the Japanese, the region of Papua was still retained by the Dutch under the name of Dutch New Guinea. The Dutch argued that due to the Papuans’ distinct racial, cultural, historical, and religious characteristics from their Indonesian counterparts, the Dutch New Guinea should be granted separate independence (Robinson, 2010). In the 1950s, the people of Papua were prepared to become an autonomous State with permission and support from the Dutch, having already established a parliament, flag, national anthem, and coat of arms, and on 1 December 1961, the Papuans ultimately declared independence from the Dutch through a flag-raising ceremony (Robinson, 2010; MacLeod, Moiwend, & Pilbrow, 2016; Kluge, 2017).

Unfortunately, the then Indonesian president, Soekarno, was outraged by the ceremony, saying that the Dutch New Guinea was a part of Indonesia and, hence, its independence shall be deemed null and void because it violated the republic’s sovereignty (Robinson, 2010). So then, in December 1961, Soekarno authorized a military operation backed by the Soviet Union called Operation Trikora and invaded the Papua region (Robinson, 2010; Indonesian National Armed Forces, n.d.). The use of force by the Soviet-backed Indonesian armed forces caught the United States’ attention due to its communism-spreading potential and war-like activities, which then followed by the United States offering itself as a mediator to which the conflicting parties agreed (Robinson, 2010; Webb-Gannon, 2014). In August 1962, both Indonesian and Dutch authorities signed the United States- and United Nations-brokered New York Agreement, which gave control of the Papua region to Indonesia after a brief transitional period overseen by the United Nations and, subsequently, ended Operation Trikora (Robinson, 2010; ICTJ & KontraS, 2011). Disappointed by the outcome of the New York Agreement, the Papuans formed a group called the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM) in 1965 in Manokwari despite one of the provisions under the New York Agreement stipulates the duty of the Indonesian government to organize a referendum in Papua in 1969. Thus, OPM became the first concerted attempt by the Papuan people to achieve political freedom from their Indonesian oppressors (Webb-Gannon, 2014).

In 1966, Soekarno’s regime came to an end after a military coup d’etat led by General Soeharto. Soeharto then became the Indonesian president, implemented the military’s dual-function doctrine (dwifungsi ABRI) that gives the military the power to control public offices and technically run the country via any means necessary, including terrors, intimidations, violence, and surveillance, and began the authoritarian rule known as the New Order (Azhar, 2005). The armed forces were keen to abuse their dual-function, inter alia, to justify a series of military occupations in Papua to ensure that when the referendum comes, the Papuan people will vote in favor of integration with Indonesia rather than becoming an independent State. Out of approximately 800,000 Papuan population at that time, only 1,022 Papuans, handpicked by the Indonesian authorities and threatened at gunpoint to do so, were allowed to participate and cast their vote (Robinson, 2010; MacLeod, Moiwend, & Pilbrow, 2016; Kluge, 2017). Unsurprisingly, the result was in favor of Indonesia’s interest: Papua failed to become an independent State and was acknowledged as a part of Indonesia.

Since then, instances of atrocities keep happening in the Papua region. Several experts claim that the sustained violent campaigns in West Papua from the 1969 Referendum until today amounted to at least 2,000 to 500,000 victims (Al Rahab, 2006; MacLeod, 2011; MacLeod, Moiwend, & Pilbrow, 2016). Other experts even believe that the violent operations in Papua amount to genocide due to the fact that, for instance, in the 1970s, 96 percent of Papua populations were Melanesian Papuans; however, in 2010, only 48 percent of Papuans populations were of the Melanesian origins (Wing & King, 2005; Elmslie & Web-Gannon, 2013; MacLeod, Moiwend, & Pilbrow, 2016).

Civilian Movements and the Birth of ULMWP

Civilian movements in Papua carrying an anti-Indonesian agenda are nuanced, and only recently were the movements consolidated under the coordination of ULMWP. As implied earlier, the first organized attempt by Papuans to demand an end to the human rights abuses and call for independence was manifested through the establishment of OPM. OPM was co-led by Seth Rumkorem, a Papuan who used to work as an intelligence officer for the Indonesian government, and Jacob Prai, who, unlike Rumkorem, had always been against the Indonesians (Gault-Williams, 1987). Rumkorem’s military experience coupled with Prai’s knowledge of the grassroots condition of Papua resulted in OPM adopting armed guerilla warfare as its primary tactic to achieve its goals, which continues until today and created a conviction among Indonesian security authorities that OPM is the armed wing of the Papuans’ struggle for independence (Gault-Williams, 1987; Webb-Gannon, 2014; Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2017).

However, OPM’s armed guerilla strategy created some frictions within itself and among Papuans in general. One of the main challenges within OPM was its inability to attain modern weapons and the shortage of medical supplies to treat its wounded combatants. On the one hand, most of the firearms used by OPM are World War II rifles left by the Dutch or guns seized or highly high-priced and illegally purchased from Indonesian armed forces (Gault-Williams, 1987; RNZ, 2020). On the other hand, OPM does not have sufficient medicines and trained medical personnel to treat its combatants (Gault-Williams, 1987). The logistical problems made it remarkably challenging for OPM to pose a serious threat to the Indonesian armed forces, leave alone to challenge Indonesia’s legitimacy over the region.

Subsequently, efforts by different Papuan leaders to seek an alternative to OPM began as early as 2004 (Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2017). By 2011, at least four grassroots groups other than OPM incorporated non-violent agenda within their struggles: Federal Republic of West Papua (Negara Republik Federal Papua Barat, NRFPB), West Papua National Coalition for Liberation (WPNCL), the Free West Papua Campaign, and West Papua National Committee (Komite Nasional Papua Barat, KNPB) (Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2017). In December 2014, delegates from different movements gathered in Saralana, Port Vila, Vanuatu to form an umbrella group to pursue independence. The delegates successfully signed the Saralana Declaration on 6 December 2014, which gave birth to ULMWP, the political wing of the Papuans struggle for independence and the end of human rights abuse by Indonesia, the occupying power (Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2017).

ULMWP’s Transboundary Diplomatic Efforts vis-a-vis States Sovereignty

ULMWP’s objectives can be divided into two limbs: short- and long-term. ULMWP’s long-term goal is, for obvious reasons, to end human rights abuses in Papua and for Papua to be an independent State. There is a considerable consensus amongst Papuans, a constituent that ULMWP represents, that political independence from Indonesia is the only way for Papuans to be genuinely free from atrocities or the potential thereto (Webb-Gannon, 2014).

As regards the second limb, since its inception, ULMWP’s short-term goal is to acquire full membership in the MSG. There is a conviction amongst ULMWP’s leaderships that international recognition of the Papuans’ struggle is much needed, and the lowest hanging fruit is obtaining full membership in a regional organization which Members possess a comparable historical and social backdrop, is geographically nearby, and has been politically involved to some extent in supporting the Papuans’ claims for independence (Cain, 2015; Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2015; Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2017). Such convictions are justified in threefold ways. First, the ULMWP Secretariat is filled with pro-independence Papuans who enjoy foreign supports, one way or another: three out of five members of the ULMWP Secretariat were either enjoying a refugee status or is living abroad. Octavianus Mote, ULMWP Secretariat’s Chair, is a former journalist who received asylum in the U.S. in 2000 (Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2015); Benny Wenda, ULMWP’s spokesperson, is currently enjoying a political asylum status in Oxford, United Kingdom (Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2019); and Leonie Tanggahma used to live in Senegal in the 1970s and is now residing in the Netherlands. Secondly, shreds of evidence have shown the willingness of the South Pacific States to advocate Papuan struggles. As previously implied, at least the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu governments had raised the human rights agenda in Papua on several United Nations General Assembly sessions. In 2015, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, showed a commitment to support the Papuans’ struggle and acknowledge that the South Pacific States “have the moral obligation to speak for those who are not allowed to talk” and “must be the eyes for those who are blindfolded (Hayward-Jones, 2015).” Thirdly, MSG accepts non-State organizations to be one of its Members. Such is the case when the New Caledonian Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (Front Libération National Kanak et Socialiste, FLNKS) was given full membership in MSG in 1989 (Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2015; MSG, n.d.b).

In January 2015, ULMWP submitted its application to MSG for full membership. The MSG leaders received the application, and it was taken into consideration in MSG’s June 2015 summit in the Solomon Islands (Cain, 2015). However, instead of giving the ULMWP full membership as it did to FLNKS, the MSG leaders decided to grant ULMWP an observer status (Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2015; Maclellan, 2015). Initially, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and FLNKS supported the inclusion of ULMWP as a Member; however, Papua New Guinea and Fiji refused to get on board (Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, 2017). Several authors argue that the reason behind MSG’s decision not to grant full membership status to ULMWP was due to potential diplomatic tensions between MSG’s Member States and Indonesia (Cain, 2015; Maclellan, 2015). For instance, during the June 2015 summit, the Prime Minister of Fiji, Bainimarama, stated that the ULMWP is “an external, non-government organization” and “is not the sovereign power in West Papua (The Fijian Government, 2015).” Therefore, “the MSG has no choice but to deal with Indonesia” and “to work closely with the Indonesian government (The Fijian Government, 2015).”

The use of sovereignty as a basis to reject ULMWP’s application was problematic for numerous reasons. First, the very notion of sovereignty is on and of itself highly contested due to the understanding that under this notion, a sovereign is free to do whatever it deems necessary to fulfill its interests within its territorial jurisdiction without the possibility of other sovereigns even to question its good-faith or lack thereof (Chatterjee, 2007). As such, regardless of the fact that there is a slow genocide happening in Papua, Member States of the MSG shall never doubt Indonesia’s motive behind the ongoing atrocities. If such an understanding was used by the MSG leaders as a justification for their rejection of ULMWP’s application, the decision violated Article 5 of the 2007 Agreement establishing the Melanesian Spearhead Group (hereinafter, the 2007 MSG Agreement), which stipulates the duty of MSG’s Members to “respect for and promotion of human rights” of people of Melanesian origin everywhere (MSG, 2007). Secondly, Article 1(4) of the 2007 MSG Agreement states that MSG leaders have the right to determine “the nature and extent” of bodies given the observer status, which implies the power of the MSG leaders to “upgrade” such status to, for instance, permanent membership shall they deemed it necessary (MSG, 2007). However, although there is a precedent in which non-State actors can be given full membership status and the fact that three out of five MSG Members were in favor of giving ULMWP full membership, MSG still decided that ULMWP was unworthy to be given such a privilege. Henceforth, it begs the question of whether the 2007 MSG Agreement fully binds MSG leaders or if the document can be arbitrarily modified according to their respective national interests and subject to political maneuvering.

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Human Rights Activist | Former Amnesty International Indonesia

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Aldo Kaligis

Aldo Kaligis

Human Rights Activist | Former Amnesty International Indonesia

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