On 9 May, the House of Commons held its first ever debate on human rights in West Papua, specifically regarding the right of self-determination. The debate was led by MP Robert Courts, who concluded by making two requests to the UK Government. His first request was that the government place more diplomatic pressure on Indonesia to honour its commitment to invite the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to visit Papua. The second request was for the UK Government to push for increased press freedom in West Papua and for the Foreign Secretary to utilise the newly-launched press freedom campaign to treat West Papua as a top priority. All attending MPs showed strong support for these comments.
The Indonesian Embassy in London responded to the comments via Twitter, stating that the Indonesian Government is committed to protecting human rights through prioritising the economic development of the region, adding that recent election results showcase a high level of satisfaction from the Papuan people.
For some time, there have been elements of support for West Papua among MPs in Westminster. Perhaps the most prominent figure in UK politics to recently show such support is the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who, in 2016, called for a UN-supervised independence vote. The official position of the UK Government, however, is much more reserved. It is limited to raising its concerns about issues such as human rights and press freedoms with the Indonesian Government. Those concerns arguably do not appear to be a top priority for Whitehall in its relationship with Indonesia. A recent call between Prime Minister Theresa May and President Joko Widodo, did not discuss concerns about human rights abuses in West Papua.
Despite the right for self-determination being at the heart of the recent debate, it is highly unlikely that the UK will support an independence movement in Papua. As Mark Field, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, stated regarding the 1969 Act of Free Choice: ‘there is no desire in the international community for reopening the question. The UK, along with other members of the UN, supports Indonesia’s territorial integrity.’
Consequently, with a lack of sustained international pressure, it is unlikely that the UK will take the initiative to strongly pressure Indonesia to address human rights concerns in West Papua. It is also worth noting that the Indonesian Government recently gave the green light for UK-based multinational oil and gas company BP, to begin exporting LNG to Singapore from its Tangguh LNG project in West Papua.
Nevertheless, the recent debate does reflect growing awareness of the human rights issues in Papua and the push for self-determination. As suggested in a recent Strategic Weekly Analysis, Indonesia’s approach to Papua may need to change in the future if that momentum for self-determination continues to grow. The current strategy of suppressing separatist elements, while at the same time promising economic benefits, is unsustainable in the long-term.
To minimise the threat of independence in Papua, the options available to the Indonesian Government range from heavier crackdowns on separatist elements, to improving standards of living and freedoms for all Papuans. If the former approach is taken, greater international pressure on the Indonesian government could result, which could prompt the UK Government to take a stronger stance on human rights concerns in West Papua.