(New York) – Indonesian President Joko Widodo should use his first official visit to Papua and West Papua provinces on October 23, 2014, to endorse specific measures to address the serious human rights problems in Indonesia’s easternmost island, Human Rights Watch said today.

Widodo plans to visit Papua and West Papua provinces three days after his inauguration. He has promised to devote “special attention” to Papua and plans to improve health care and education as a means to ease “political tensions” in the resource-rich area.

“President Widodo deserves credit for recognizing that Papua’s problems demand the urgent attention of his new government,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “But Widodo should recognize that this government can’t just spend its way out of Papua’s problems and needs to address an abusive status quo rooted in the persistent human rights violations in Papua.”

Papua presents particular governance challenges for the Widodo government. The ongoing low-level conflict with the small and poorly organized Free Papua Movement (OPM) places responsibilities on the government to ensure security for the population. Security forces repeatedly fail to distinguish between violent acts and peaceful expression of political views. The government has denounced flag-raisings and other peaceful expressions of pro-independence sentiment in Papua as treasonous. Heavy-handed responses to peaceful activities have caused numerous human rights violations.

In the past three years, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in which police, military, intelligence officers, and prison guards have used unnecessary or excessive force when dealing with Papuans exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and association. The government also frequently arrests and prosecutes Papuan protesters for peacefully advocating independence or other political change.

More than 60 Papuan activists are in prison on treason charges. Filep Karma, a civil servant, is serving 15 years for raising the Morning Star flag – a West Papua independence symbol – in December 2004. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said that Karma was not given a fair trial and asked the Indonesian government to immediately and unconditionally release him. Indonesia rejected the recommendation. Human Rights Watch takes no position on the right to self-determination, but opposes imprisonment of people who peacefully express support for self-determination.

Government restrictions on access by foreign journalists and human rights monitors to Papua foster a climate in which security forces can commit abuses out of the public eye, making investigations more difficult. The government blocks international media from freely reporting in Papua by limiting access by foreign reporters to only those the government gives official permission to visit. The government rarely approves such applications or indefinitely delays processing, hampering efforts by journalists and civil society groups to report on breaking events.

Two French reporters from Franco-German Arte TV, Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat, detained in Papua since August 6, 2014, went on trial on October 20 on charges of “abusive use of entry visas.”

Widodo should adopt measures that will have immediate impact in addressing human rights in Papua, including:

  • End restrictions on access to Papua for independent observers, including allowing international journalists and human rights organizations to visit Papua without specific permission or approval. Dismissing charges against Dandois and Bourrat would indicate a commitment to end the obstacles to foreign media access;
  • Comply with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s 2011 request for the immediate and unconditional release of Filep Karma and other political prisoners in Papua; and
  • Order the Indonesian military, including the Special Forces (Kopassus), to immediately cease the unlawful surveillance of peaceful activists, politicians, and clergy, and to ensure that civilian authorities in Papua retain responsibility for basic law enforcement.

Widodo’s government should also take measures in the longer term to address human rights abuses in Papua, including:

  • Review the 2007 Government Regulation No. 77, which bans the use of “separatist flags” in Papua, the Moluccas Islands, and Aceh; and
  • Order an independent and impartial investigation into various allegations of human rights violations in Papua, including killings, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrest and detention. Such an investigation should lead to appropriate prosecutions of security force personnel implicated in serious abuses.

“President Widodo has a unique opportunity to address Papua’s festering rights problems by addressing the impunity and isolation that fuel abuses,” Kine said. “Widodo’s challenge is to deliver meaningful action, not more empty government rhetoric, to tackle the issues facing Papua’s people.”