New Zealand’s parliament has been presented with a public petition urging government action on the human rights situation in West Papua.
Activist Maire Leadbeater and Murray Short, who was representing the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers), presented their petition, with 729 signatures on it, to the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committee.
This petition focuses on continued abuses of the right to freedom of expression and assembly in Indonesian-ruled Papua, citing thousands of arrests of people taking part in peaceful demonstrations last year.
Earlier this month in Geneva, seven Pacific nations called on the UN Human Rights Council to request that the High Commissioner for Human Rights produce a consolidated report on “the actual situation in West Papua”.
Ms Leadbeater said their petition simply asked government to recognise the abuses and to take a strong stand on them.
“And we’ve suggested specific things, like calling for the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression to go to West Papua, and we’ve suggested that they take this up at the Pacific Islands Forum, and get them to support this, and also at the United Nations.”
“We obviously put this petition forward in the context of serious concerns about grave and ongoing rights abuses,” Ms Leadbetter explained.
“But we have to go step by step. An important first step would be to make it possible for there to be much freer access to West Papua, and for the Indonesians to have to take note of the fact that the rest of the world won’t accept that they just go on arresting people who do nothing more than peacefully protest.”
The committee thanked Ms Leadbetter for her presentation, with several MPs expressing appreciation at gaining a slightly better understanding of the situation in Papua, which remained a blindspot for many New Zealanders.
Indonesia’s Joko Widodo-led government has made tentative moves towards opening up West Papua to outside access by foreign journalists.
But extensive restrictions remain for media in Papua, as well as international humanitiarian groups and NGOs, which are almost totally barred.
Jakarta is sensitive to what it sees as interference in its own domestic affairs.
Indonesia’s Defence Minister recently urged Australia to tell Pacific Island governments not to talk about West Papua.
However Ms Leadbetter said Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua should not override legitimate concerns about protecting an indigenous people systematically under threat.
She cited the research of Jim Elmslie, an Australian scholar who has studied the marginalisation of West Papuan people, amid demographic patterns in Indonesia’s eastern region.
Dr Elmslie’s research into the situation in Papua uncovered a marginalisation so serious that it meets the stringent criteria under the Genocide Convention.
“That’s a strong thing to say but his academic research backs that up carefully,” Ms Leadbetter explained.
“So he says this is genocide and as far as he is concerned nothing trumps genocide, not even territorial integrity. And I think we have to make that loud and clear. It’s all very well saying sovereignty and territorial integrity, but not in the face of genocide – that’s absurd.”