Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

Rights Protection in Papua – Is Australia a Reluctant Neighbour?

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 By Budi Hernawan

West Papuan students being held in Timika Police Custody after the 1 May incident

West Papuan students being held in Timika Police Custody after the 1 May incident

The recent fatal shootings in Papua by the Indonesian authorities are not novel. Rather, they are the latest in an ongoing pattern of human rights abuse. The gravity of the crackdown in the context of which the shootings occurred has been emphasised  not only by local human rights groups but also by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. In a public statement released just two days after the shootings, she said she was disappointed to see ‘violence and abuses continuing in Papua’, and she described the latest incidents  as ‘unfortunate examples of the ongoing suppression of freedom of expression and excessive use of force in Papua.’  Such a prompt response from the highest UN official dealing with human rights sends a clear signal that the violence in Papua is by no means a low priority on the UN’s human rights agenda.

In claiming that ‘[i]nternational human rights law requires the Government of Indonesia to conduct thorough, prompt and impartial investigations into the incidents of killings and torture and [to] bring the perpetrators to justice’, Pillay invokes the fundamental responsibility of all states to protect their own citizens.  No longer conceived as absolute immunity from external scrutiny, the concept of state sovereignty has been reconceptualised in terms of rights protection. The doctrine of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P)  recognises that ‘the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself’, but it also assumes that the international community has a responsibility to protect populations which are suffering serious harm either at the hands of the state itself, or where the state is ‘unwilling or unable to halt or avert’ the harm. In upholding its responsibility to protect, the international community recognises not only the possibility of taking collective action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, but has also committed itself (A/RES/60/1, para. 138-140) ‘to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means…to help to protect populations’, and to ‘helping States build capacity to protect their populations’.

The unpunished crimes against humanity in Papua in the last half a century indicate complete impunity of the Indonesian state. This pattern reflects Indonesia’s failure to fulfill its responsibility to protect its own people. Given this, the international community, including Australia, has a responsibility to act, pursuing a range of forms and levels of engagement with Indonesia. Otherwise, Australia ignores the warning of the former special adviser to the UN Secretary General on Genocide Prevention, Juan Mendez, when he cited indigenous Papuans as ‘at risk of extinction’.

An open letter to Bob Carr, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, signed recently by 37 Australian academics, was written in the spirit of the responsibility to protect. Geographically, Australia is Papua’s closest neighbour. As the ongoing impunity remains unresolved, it is Australia’s responsibility to provide international assistance and capacity building to ensure Indonesia’s capacity to fulfill its responsibility to protect Papuans. Two major points raised in the petition to Bob Carr are the need to ensure the accountability of Indonesia’s security sector, and the need for conflict resolution through peace talks between Papua and Jakarta. Both of these goals must be actively and honestly pursued by Australia if it is to uphold its claim to be a committed member of the international community of rights recognising states.

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