We Need The Truth On West Papua


Severe abuses of human and democratic rights continue in West Papua as the indigenous population struggles for the right to decide their own future as a people. As the violence escalates, it’s important we know what role Australia is playing in supporting the Indonesian security forces working in the region.

As the news from our neighbours in West Papua worsens, it has become more urgent that we critically examine Australia’s connections to the alleged perpetrators of violence. This includes Detachment 88, an elite counter-terrorist unit that Australia helps to train. It appears that their remit has not been limited to counter-terrorism, as they appear to be engaged in "counter-separatist" operations against the indigenous people of West Papua.

Many Australians from right across the country have contacted me to urge advocacy and action on behalf of our West Papuan neighbours. I’m deeply concerned about how Australian funding is being spent and the level of accountability that goes with it. Human rights standards must be attached to the support we give to the Indonesian military and police. It’s time for Australians to have clear information about what our military and police training funding is supporting.

The recent history of West Papua is a violent one. The Indigenous people of West Papua have been waiting a long time to have a say in their own political future.

Self-determination, a right belonging to all people, was denied to them when a sham referendum ironically labelled the "Act of Free Choice" saw their land formally annexed to Indonesia in 1969. A true act of self-determination should have occurred, but it did not. The Papuans were denied their chance to vote on their future. Instead, there was an atmosphere of violence and intimidation, with 1022 hand-picked Papuans assembled, cajoled, bribed and threatened into voting to become part of the Republic of Indonesia.

During the many decades of Indonesian occupation since 1969 we’ve seen an alarming number of disappearances, imprisonments and deaths of West Papuan people, with strong evidence that many of these atrocities can be attributed to Indonesian security forces.

As Marni Cordell reported in New Matilda, details about Australia’s support for the Detachment 88 counter-terrorist unit are difficult to confirm. I’ve been working in the Parliament and in Senate Estimates to ask questions about Australia’s role in the imprisonment of political activists and deaths reported from the region.

So far, detailed answers have been difficult to come by. Our Foreign Minister states that our role in training these forces ensures that Australian standards of human rights protections are conveyed. That is commendable, but the evidence is mounting that these standards are not being upheld on the ground.

Detachment 88 has been alleged to be involved in several incidents over the past year, a particularly bloody one in West Papua. This includes the recent killing of West Papuan independence leader Mako Tabuni. Awareness about this killing was raised in Australia following last week’s reports on ABC’s 7.30. Two journalists went undercover into West Papua, despite significant restrictions on press movement in the region.

Of particular importance were the first-hand accounts that the 7.30 journalists gathered from observers of the killing of Tabuni. The evidence to demonstrate Detachment 88’s involvement was strong. Yet his family and fellow independence activists mourn without any process of justice to examine the circumstances of his death.

I was heartened by Minister Carr’s call for an inquiry into Mako Tabuni’s killing, when questioned about the evidence presented by the ABC. It is important that the Foreign Minister takes a leadership role. He needs to make it very clear to his counterpart in Indonesia that what’s going on in the region is unacceptable.

West Papua presents a challenge for Australian diplomacy and for the global community. It is a challenge that this nation and indeed the world is yet to meet. It’s important that Australia plays a role in supporting counter-terrorism training in our region. But this cooperative approach should be extended to upholding human rights.

Our partnership with Indonesia must be based on mutual respect and a mutual commitment to advance democracy and the rights of the region’s peoples. We should take seriously any reports that Australian-trained or Australian-funded Indonesian forces are acting with impunity in the troubled West Papua region.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.