By Sally Andrews, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program

As the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) prepares to discuss West Papua's latest bid for membership, the 'Papuan problem' poses a significant challenge to Melanesian states, who tread a fine line between responding to regional human rights concerns and managing relations with Indonesia.

Melanesian Spearhead Group Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Port Villa, Vanuatu, 25 March 2015.

Recent outcry surrounding West Papuan activist Benny Wenda's unexpected arrival and removal from PNG demonstrates just how fraught the issue has become. 

When Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill acknowledged human rights concerns in the Papuan provinces in a public speech in February 2015, questions were raised about the implications for PNG's relationship with Indonesia and its position within the Melanesian Spearhead Group

The MSG's instrumental role in raising the profile of New Caledonia's Kanak independence movement has prompted Papuan activists to recognise the significance of MSG membership. Hoping to gain a regional platform from which serious human rights, sovereignty and development concerns in the Papuan provinces can be raised, West Papua submitted an unsuccessful application to the Group in October 2013. 

One of the key issues impeding Papuan representation is the leverage exercised by Indonesia within the MSG. Indonesia submitted a membership application in 2010, and despite strong opposition from Vanuatu, Indonesia won observer status in 2011 with the help of Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, then Chairman of the MSG's Leader Summit, and the support of Sir Michael Somare, then Prime Minister of PNG.

Enabling Indonesian membership has strengthened Fiji's relationship with Indonesia but has alienated Vanuatu and deepened perceptions that Indonesian participation has jeopardised Papuan chances of representation. Before votes were cast on the Papuan application in 2013, the Indonesian foreign minister suggested that the MSG undertake a fact-finding visit to Papua to investigate human rights concerns. Vanuatu boycotted the visit and repudiated the statement released in January 2014 by the remaining MSG foreign ministers, who resolved to uphold respect for Indonesia's territorial sovereignty. 

Maintaining a commitment to non-interference in Indonesian domestic affairs and supporting Papuans' 'inalienable rights' towards self-determination seems likely to generate problems for the MSG in 2015. Fiji and PNG have vested interests in maintaining good relations with Indonesia, with growing investment, military and trade links providing a tense backdrop to discussions concerning Papua. Indonesian sensitivity about Papuan independence has only increased since Timor Leste's independence in 2002. There are real concerns about the potential for diplomatic and commercial blowback that may face Fiji and PNG as the price of supporting Papuan membership.

Lack of cohesion between the West Papuan National Council for Liberation (WPNCL) and the rest of the independence movement has also impeded the membership bid. Comprised of 28 political parties and NGOs, the WPNCL's claim to represent 2.5 million West Papuans was rejected on grounds that too few of the organisations were based in Papua, raising speculation that the bid was being driven by sympathisers in the West at the expense of grassroots participation. 

A second application has since been submitted by a new, larger and more representative umbrella coalition, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). Led by spokesperson Benny Wenda, the ULMWP application will be discussed at the official 20th Leaders' Summit in Honiara in July 2015.

Having addressed problems in the WPNCL application, reception of ULMWP's bid is still difficult to predict. Vanuatu has a long history of Papuan advocacy, promoting Papuan membership in both the MSG and the Pacific Islands Forum, whilst FLNKS is also a strong supporter. The host of this year's MSG Summit, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, has commented on the need for the MSG to assume leadership on human rights in Papua, but his position on the membership application is unclear. Fiji, significantly, is yet to take a position. As for PNG, Prime Minister O'Neill's statement may yet prove the game changer for the MSG; whilst PNG's Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato 'clarified' O'Neill's February statement by re-asserting that PNG held full support for Indonesia, O'Neill subsequently urged Indonesia to support Papuan membership.

One important factor in the mix is the diplomatic tension between PNG and Fiji. Hints that the PNG leadership is becoming more sympathetic are unlikely to prompt support for Papuan membership from Fiji. Having championed Indonesia's application in 2011, the Fiji leadership may judge that its interests lie in declining to make a decision whilst further strengthening relations with Indonesia.  

PNG may pursue the Papuan cause solely as a human rights issue. As the host of the next Pacific Islands Forum leaders' meeting in September 2015, PNG may seek to avoid any impression of disunity at a sub-regional level. In either case, it is entirely possible that the Papuan application will be left to flounder, trumped by the interests of the two most influential Melanesian states. 

Meanwhile, advocacy from civil society groups across the Pacific Islands is contributing to a perception that there is growing popular support for Papuan representation. Groups such as the Pacific Council of Churches, Free West Papua Campaign, Peace Movement Aotearoa, Pacific Network on Globalisation and We Bleed Black and Red have been mounting public protests, emphasising the public interest in the Papuan cause to political leaders.

Support for West Papua is mounting within Fiji itself, with domestic pressure bearing upon Bainimarama from the Fiji Solidarity Movement, Fiji Council of Churches and even Fiji Rugby Union. This activism may yet prompt the Prime Minister to take the risk of offending Indonesia by supporting Papuan membership, if only as a means to capture popular sentiment. The deepening military ties between the two nations, however, in addition to apparent silence on the Papuan issue at the 1st March meetings between the Indonesian and Fijian Foreign Ministers, has left supporters of the application in doubt. 

Difficult decisions lie ahead for the members of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, who must weigh the value of relationships with Indonesia against the opportunity to recognise West Papuans, potentially do something about persistent human rights concerns and also capitalise on the emergence of a strong popular Melanesian regional identity.

Photo courtesy of Fijian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.