West Papuans in the consulate

By Clinton Fernandes | 08 Oct 13

By Clinton Fernandes

When three young West Papuan men entered the Australian consulate in Bali on the morning of Sunday,6 October, they made a bold and intelligent statement. It was bold because it took courage and daring to climb over the high walls of the consulate during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. It was intelligent because of what they did next: they presented a letter “to the people in Australia” explaining that their aim was to encourage world leaders “to persuade the Indonesian government to treat Papuan people better”. They were “explicitly committed to non-violence”, a topic to which I will return shortly.

The Australian consulate in Bali, like its embassy in Jakarta, is absolutely inviolable under Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Since Indonesia is a party to the Convention, it is “under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion … and to prevent any disturbance of the peace.” Indonesian officials were powerless to enter the premises to remove the West Papuans unless, under article 22(1), the head of mission consented to the entry of Indonesian police to remove them. At most, Indonesia in an extreme case could exercise its right under Article 9 to declare diplomatic staff persona non grata, or to withdraw its consent to the presence of the mission. This scenario remained hypothetical, however, because the West Papuans left shortly after entering, fearful that they would be handed over to the Indonesian police or army – a situation with dire consequences for them.

It’s worth considering the West Papuans’ requests in light of the 2006 Lombok Treaty between Indonesia and Australia. The Australian Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) examined the 2006 Lombok Treaty between Indonesia and Australia. The significance of the JSCOT report is that it was a bipartisan committee: both major parties endorsed it, meaning that there are opportunities to lobby individual politicians to endorse its recommendations. They can do so without fear of being called extremist or having gone outside their parties’ policies on relations with Indonesia. Australians who are concerned about the situation in West Papua have tended to ignore the JSCOT report and the human rights opportunities it presents – but this is a mistake, in my view. Its recommendations should be taken up, publicised widely, and endorsed by any number of civil society groups and individual politicians.

One of the Lombok Treaty’s key principles was that neither Australia nor Indonesia would support or participate in any activity “which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other”. The West Papuans’ requests were well within the bounds of what both Australia and Indonesia had agreed to. Indeed, as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has stated, the Australian government position in relation to West Papua is that it “does not support separatism or Papuan independence but we support freedom of speech and assembly.”

What the West Papuans asked for was modest: they made no reference to independence, but called for the release of political prisoners (there are more than 50 of them) and for “foreigners, including journalists, diplomats, observers and tourists, to be able to visit West Papua freely”. These requests are reasonable, and cannot be dismissed out of hand by governments accustomed to re-stating their commitment to Indonesia’s territorial integrity.

JSCOT also recommended that the Australian Government “increase transparency in defence cooperation agreements to provide assurance that Australian resources do not directly or indirectly support human rights abuses in Indonesia”. This is a valuable recommendation that Australians who are concerned about human rights should follow up on: what is the extent of Australia-Indonesia military cooperation? Whom are we training, for what purposes, and what are the consequences?

JSCOT also agreed that more open access to Papua would help to ensure greater respect for human rights. After all, if the goal is to improve human rights, a good way of achieving it is to ensure that there is unhindered access for human rights monitors and foreign journalists to anywhere in Indonesia, and especially in West Papua. JSCOT therefore recommended that “the Australian Government encourage the Indonesian Government to allow greater access for the media and human rights monitors in Papua.” This is precisely what the three West Papuans are asking for.

Their entry into the Australian consulate in Bali is a classic example of non-violent action, which is a process of bringing political, economic, social, emotional, or moral pressure to bear against adversaries. The West Papuans’ non-violent actions offer them some strategic advantages over violent resistance. Whereas the Indonesian government can easily justify military operations against violent insurgents, any violence against nonviolent campaigners is harder to justify and more likely to backfire against the regime. Nonviolent campaigners are also likely to create an environment of negotiation and dialogue because they do not threaten the lives or well-being of members of the Indonesian military. Their actions are likely to resonate with progressive elements inside Indonesia, who may respond well to campaigns that are not physically threatening and whose goals are politically acceptable.

It remains to be seen what comes out of all this, but one thing is clear: the Australian public’s attention has been drawn to the situation in West Papua very early in the new Abbott government. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have an opportunity to respond well to the moderate, reasonable requests of the West Papuans. The rest of us too have an opportunity to get involved in supporting the legitimate aspirations of our West Papuan neighbours. Whether we do so or not is up to us.

Dr Clinton Fernandes is an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. He has written widely on the independence of East Timor, and Australian-Indonesian relations. His principal research area is international relations and strategy, and he recently took part in an international Fact-Finding Mission on the elections in Malaysia.