The issue of human rights in West Papua was high on the agenda at the recent Pacific Islands Forum in the Federated States of Micronesia. Despite the sensitivities for member countries like Australia and Papua New Guinea, leaders at the forum also agreed the issue should stay on the agenda for next year's meeting in Samoa.
Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea went on the record to say: 'It's an issue that needs to be pursued and it's not going to go away. Our bigger countries in the region like Australia and New Zealand realise that this issue is just not going to go to sleep – and it shouldn't go to sleep, because it is very important for our region.'
This line is a rebuttal to Indonesian authorities who would prefer that Forum leaders avoid discussion of human rights and self-determination in West Papua. Speaking after a ministerial meeting in Australia last December, Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu (a former army chief of staff) said West Papua should not be an issue for regional discussion:
There are countries that are getting involved in the issue of Papua. For us, Papua is in the United Republic of Indonesia. The United Republic of Indonesia extends from Sabang to Papua. There is no other solution to talk about it, that's it, that's the way it is. So this is so that everyone will know that that doesn't need to be spoken about.
Pacific civil society has ensured that island leaders continue to address the issue. First adopted in 2014, the Framework for Pacific Regionalism is a new policy mechanism for business and community organisations to put forward submissions for regional action by forum leaders. In both 2015 and this year, the largest number of submissions called for action on West Papua.
In Pohnpei, civil society representatives met over breakfast with a troika of island leaders, lobbying for the Forum to take the West Papuan issue to the international community.
Non-self-governing territories like New Caledonia and French Polynesia are now gaining full membership in the Forum, yet countries like Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji are reluctant to grant membership to the United Liberation Movement of West Papua, which is lobbying for regional support. The Forum's final communique simply stated that 'leaders recognised the political sensitivities of the issue of West Papua (Papua) and agreed the issue of alleged human rights violations in West Papua should remain on their agenda. Leaders also agreed on the importance of an open and constructive dialogue with Indonesia on the issue'.
The reference to 'alleged' human rights violations is much weaker language than used in other regional statements, such as the 2013 Melanesian Spearhead Group Summit, which supported 'the inalienable rights of the people of West Papua towards self-determination' and condemned 'human rights violations and other forms of atrocities relating to the West Papuan people'.
After the meeting, Emele Duituturaga, executive director of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisations (PIANGO), said: 'We know that the draft text reflected their intention to take West Papua to the United Nations, but when the final communiqué was released, it had been watered down.' As a journalist who reported on the Forum in Pohnpei, a number of sources from the leaders' retreat confirmed that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull personally weakened the language on West Papua in the communiqué.
After the summit, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi (who will host the 2017 Forum in Apia) said: 'It must be understood that West Papua is part of Indonesia and any other way of handling it is interfering with Indonesia's national interests. That is why the only way to do this is through the United Nations under the right to self-determination.'
Given the lack of agreement at the Pacific Islands Forum , individual countries will now work through the Pacific Coalition on West Papua to lobby at the United Nations Human Rights Council and other UN structures. Under the coalition umbrella, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia's FLNKS independence movement are now joined by Nauru, Tuvalu and Marshall Islands, as well as churches and civil society groups like PIANGO.
The Forum summit received poor coverage in Australia because the Australian media failed to take it seriously. The press pack arrived with Turnbull on his plane after the Forum meeting had begun, and left on Saturday night before the official communique was released. I encourage readers of The Interpreter to look beyond Australia's mainstream media, and go to Pacific media organisations that gave extensive coverage to what island leaders are actually saying.
Photo: Getty Images/Ulet Ifansasti