The drawn-out hostage drama in West Papua over New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens has focused Western attention on this neglected area of the world. Mehrtens was abducted and his plane burned by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) on February 7, 2023. He was accused by the group of violating a no-fly zone it had issued over the West Papua region.
On April 16, rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom stated in a recorded message that TPNPB has “asked the Indonesian and New Zealand governments to free the hostages through peaceful negotiations.” The group originally demanded that Indonesian authorities recognize the independence of West Papua, but more recently it indicated that it was prepared to drop the demand for independence and seek dialogue.
The West Papua Conflict
The western part of the island of New Guinea, often referred to as West Papua, is administered under the name Irian Jaya and now split apart into six Indonesian provinces: Central Papua, Highland Papua, Papua, South Papua, Southwest Papua, and West Papua. There has been conflict across the resource-rich region since Indonesia assumed control in 1963.
At the independence of Indonesia, the Netherlands had argued that West Papua was ethnically different from the remainder of Indonesia, and it was successful in arguing before the United Nations that the area should not be included in the new Indonesian state. The Dutch and later local Melanesian groups within West Papua asserted that the region’s cultural, religious, and ethnic differences mandated separate West Papuan independence. Nevertheless, the legal and ethical imperatives of an independent Indonesia occupying the entire territory of the Dutch East Indies, along with Cold War security concerns, led to the U.S.-sponsored 1962 New York Agreement, which enabled Indonesia to assert jurisdiction.
Under the agreement, the Netherlands and nascent local West Papuan administration were dissolved in exchange for a U.N.-overseen referendum where the West Papuan population would be allowed to determine whether their region would remain within Indonesia or become independent. This vote, held in 1969, and called the Act of Free Choice, involved approximately 1,025 government-selected delegates. The delegates unanimously supported integration with Indonesia, a decision that was approved by the U.N. General Assembly in Resolution 2504.
The perceived unfairness of the process and the consequent denial of self-determination in the eyes of many West Papuans – coupled with discrimination, marginalization, and rights abuses by Indonesian authorities ever since – have led to simmering dissatisfaction and low-level insurgency for decades. Political and insurgent groups such as the TPNPB, Free Papua Movement, United Liberation Movement for West Papua, and the West Papua National Committee have found support with the indigenous West Papuan population due to ongoing suppression of political activity and the use of the armed Indonesian military and police.
Security forces have been used to stop protests, rallies, or discussions on human rights and political issues, and political and civil rights have been significantly curtailed. According to Human Rights Monitor, for the past several decades, many indigenous Papuans have feared becoming victims of arbitrary arrest, torture, killings, or enforced disappearance. And they have been traumatized due to the history of violent military operations across the island.
The Indonesian government has denied allegations of human rights abuses and displacement of civilians. Its prescription for the region involves economic development and the devolving of more autonomy, but current efforts have not resolved dissatisfaction and unrest among indigenous West Papuans.
In 2017, the U.N. Decolonization Committee refused to accept a petition presented by exiled West Papuan leader Benny Wenda, which allegedly contained signatures of 1.8 million West Papuans calling for independence, arguing that U.N. involvement in West Papua is outside the Committee’s mandate.
Violence escalated in 2018, following the shooting deaths of Indonesian construction workers and the mass arrests of West Papuan protesters who were marking the December 1 “Independence Day” for the region. In 2022, three U.N. Human Rights Special Rapporteurs called for humanitarian access to the region and urged the Indonesian government to conduct full and independent investigations into human rights abuses. More recently, the March 2023 Universal Periodic Review Report of the Working Group on Indonesia criticized the government’s human rights abuses in West Papua and called for a visit by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In the same report, Indonesia acknowledged some human rights abuses and the need for redress, noting that it was committed to delivering justice to the victims and their families. The government insisted that “[a]ccording to international law, Papua [is] an integral part of Indonesia.”
It is likely that violence will continue to escalate. On April 15, the chief of Indonesia’s armed forces, General Laksamana Yudo Margono, announced that the mode of operations against the TPNPB will be switched from a “soft approach” to “ground combat ready” operations.
The Response From Australia and New Zealand
Throughout all this violence and suppression, New Zealand and Australian governmental voices have been muted. Despite calls in some quarters for the states to back some form of international involvement in the conflict, there has been little recognition of the West Papuan situation in Wellington or Canberra. Both countries have extensive and growing trade relationships with Indonesia as well as defense and security cooperation. This cooperation extends from their bilateral relationships to regional and multilateral cooperation, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement.
The silence suggests the limits of Australian and New Zealand “values-based” diplomacy and outlines the real constraints that geography and trade relationships have for middle powers with a commitment to human rights and values.
Australia and New Zealand’s relations with Indonesia, their largest neighbor, have been driven by the need to have stability and good relations for economic and security reasons. Yet these relatively simple objectives have been complicated by history. Both bilateral relationships are fraught with colonial and racialist baggage that has been part and parcel of many post-colonial state-to-state relationships across the Asia-Pacific.
First, while Australia and New Zealand supported Indonesian independence and the decolonization process – for example, New Zealand and Australian waterside workers’ boycott of Dutch shipping undermined the Dutch military effort to retake Indonesia – Canberra and Wellington sided with the Netherlands over the issue of whether West Papua should be included in newly independent Indonesia. To strengthen this position, Australia and New Zealand pointed out the lack of cultural and ethnological ties between West Papua and Indonesia and the potential harm to indigenous inhabitants.
Their support for a separate West Papuan decolonization process was nevertheless tempered by ideological and security concerns as members of the British Commonwealth and as members of the anti-communist Western coalition with the United States. Both Australia and New Zealand looked askance at Indonesian efforts to build the Non-Aligned Movement and they actively supported the Commonwealth against the Indonesian “Konfrontasi” policy in Malaya. In addition, Cold War ideological and security concerns played a role. Both states worried that various hostile political elements and/or ethnic conflict in Indonesia could provide an opportunity for anti-Western groups to secure a foothold in the region, or support a government that would dispense with Indonesia’s more traditional non-aligned policy in favor of a policy more aligned with Chinese or Soviet interests.
After the accession of the military-backed Suharto regime in 1965 and the end of Konfrontasi, these larger concerns led Australia and New Zealand to support the U.N. decolonization process and acquiesce to Indonesian control over West Papua and later East Timor.
More recently, relationships with Indonesia were seriously challenged with the Australian and New Zealand intervention in East Timor, which ended in the establishment of an independent Timor-Leste under the U.N.-sponsored International Force for East Timor (INTERFET). This U.N. mission, led by Australia and having a large New Zealand presence signaled a shift away from acceptance of decolonialist justifications for Indonesian territorial expansion and signaled a more human-rights based, less security-oriented policy approach by the two states. For a short time at the start of this century, it also ended most cooperation between Australia and New Zealand and Indonesia.
After 9/11 and the Bali Bombing in 2002, Australia moved relatively quickly to re-establish its security relationship with Indonesia, following the ruptures caused by Timor-Leste’s independence. This renewed effort is premised on the notion that Indonesian governmental capacity, security, and territorial integrity are crucial to Australian interests.
In 2006, the countries entered into the Lombok Treaty. This treaty focuses on the practicalities of various security arrangements between the countries, involving such things as terrorism, maritime enforcement, defense, and law enforcement. In the Treaty the states agreed to mutually respect the “sovereignty, territorial integrity, national unity and political independence of each other,” and pledge “non-interference” in each other’s internal affairs. These security arrangements and the respect for territorial integrity have limited Australian responses in West Papua despite the domestic sympathy much of the Australian public has given to the West Papuan population.
The thin line walked by Australia is evident in then Opposition Senator (and current foreign minister) Penny Wong’s 2019 website post, where she noted that Labor is distressed by “human rights violations” in West Papua while reasserting that the territorial integrity as enshrined in the Lombok Treaty “remains the bedrock of security cooperation” between Australia and Indonesia.
It could be expected that New Zealand would be less constrained by geography and security considerations than Australia when it comes to West Papua. In addition, the characterization of New Zealand as a normative leader in global affairs suggests a stronger voice in favor of human rights, applied in an even-handed manner. Recently, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta stated: “Matters such as human rights should be approached in a consistent, country agnostic manner. We will not ignore the severity and impact of any particular country’s actions if they conflict with our longstanding and formal commitment to universal human rights.”
Nevertheless, the range of joint security activities and cooperation, trade, and New Zealand aid programs indicate that the West Papuan situation will not impact the New Zealand-Indonesia relationship, nor will Wellington seek to use any bilateral influence or normative platform it may have to address the problems in the region. This is evident in Prime Minster Chris Hipkins’ criticism of the TPNPB for using hostages “to make a political point.”
In the Universal Periodic Review, both Australia and New Australia criticized Indonesia for the West Papuan situation. This criticism, while important and pointed, is likely the extent of Australian and New Zealand commentary and involvement in the conflict. Foreign policymakers in both countries have shown little willingness to address the unrest or human rights issues in West Papua. Despite ongoing human rights violations and growing violence in the region, the history of the relationships among the states and current economic and security interests necessitate good relations with Indonesia, precluding either Australia or New Zealand from using its good offices, leverage or normative authority from mediating the conflict.