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Indonesia Permits Rare Papua Access to UN Health Rights Expert

Visit Shines Light on Government Policy Failures

The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health did something remarkable last week: he traveled to the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

Dainius Puras’ two-day trip to Papua, part of a two-week official visit, was notable for the simple fact the Indonesian government allowed it to happen. Given the government’s long history of blocking scrutiny of conditions in Papua by foreign media and international observers, including UN experts, this development may indicate a change in policy.

A woman who is infected with HIV prepares her medicines in a shelter house in Jayapura of the Indonesia Papua province November 27, 2008.  © 2008 Reuters

In 2013, the government rejected the proposed visit of Frank La Rue, then-UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, because he insisted on travelling to Papua. The government has justified limiting international observers’ access to Papua on security grounds, but the reality is the government and the security forces are just unwilling to face criticism from nongovernmental organizations and the foreign media.

Puras’ observations about health conditions in Papua are a searing indictment of the government’s failings on public health. He singled out the fact that ethnic Papuans “are two times more likely to have HIV/AIDS than the rest of the population and new infections are on the rise.” He called for the development of “culturally sensitive” HIV/AIDS treatment in the region.

Other statistics are equally alarming: Papua has the lowest life expectancy in Indonesia and the country’s highest infant, child, and maternal mortality rates. Despite Papua’s glaring health service deficiencies, the government severely restricts access of international NGOs, including those that provide much-needed healthcare services. In August 2010, the government banned from Papua the Dutch international aid organization Cordaid. The government asserted the organization had assisted Papua pro-independence activists, an allegation Cordaid denied.

Puras’ concerns about health rights in Papua should be a wakeup call to the government that its current policies on health in Papua are seriously inadequate. The government should recognize that international NGOs – and allowing media to freely report in Papua – can play a crucial role in supporting official efforts to fill gaps in public health delivery systems. Permitting Puras’ visit will hopefully open the door to wider international access to Papua, so that the government can get support to address the appallingly poor health indicators of ethnic Papuans.

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