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A coalition of Pacific island states is urging the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate human rights abuses in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua (generally referred to as “Papua”).

Protesters react as police spray water canon to disperse them during a rally calling for their right to self-determination in the Indonesian controlled part of Papua, in Jakarta, Indonesia, December 1, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

The request by Vanuatu’s Justice Minister Ronald Warsal on behalf of Vanuatu, Tonga, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and Solomon Islands expresses concern about “widespread violations” of human rights in Papua including extrajudicial killings of Papuan activists. The Indonesian government has rejected these allegations and stated that it “always endeavoured to address any allegation of human rights violation” in Papua.

Pacific island states have good reason to be concerned about human rights abuses in Papua. Although the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has repeatedly promised a new approach to Papua, home to a low-level insurgency and a peaceful pro-independence movement, the reality has not matched the rhetoric.

In April 2016, the Indonesian government announced it would seek accountability for 11 high-priority human rights cases in Papua from past years. However, the government has not provided any details as to when, where, and how the cases would be addressed. Indonesian authorities continue to restrict access by foreign journalists and rights monitors to the region.

Throughout 2016, Indonesian police arrested more than 3,900 peaceful protesters in Papua during protests for causes including support for Papuan independence. Police released the detainees after several hours without charge, but their arrests underline the official lack of tolerance for peaceful expression of political aspirations in Papua. As of September 2016, 37 Papuan activists were still imprisoned after being convicted of treason, many for nonviolent “crimes” such as public display of the pro-independence Morning Star flag.

If the Indonesian government really wants to improve human rights in Papua, it needs to stop reflexively denying the abuses that occur there and open up Papua to UN investigators. Until it does, those abuses – and international pressure on Indonesia to stop them – will only continue. 

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