West Papua, an ongoing forgotten conflict


Since the invasion of West Papua over five decades ago, Indonesia has committed an endless list of severe human rights violations against the island’s civilians. More than 500,000 West Papuans have been killed in what is arguably a genocide against the indigenous population. Thousands have been reported to be tortured, raped, unlawfully imprisoned or “disappeared” after being detained by Indonesian forces. Basic human rights are denied and Papuans live in a state of fear and intimidation [1]. As West Papuans fight for independence, Indonesia refuses to relinquish its power on the island – and continues to deny using any violence, while locking out media from the area. Despite this ongoing situation,  many world democracies (especially the ones nearby, like Australia or New Zealand) remain silent on human rights abuses on West Papua – but with new technologies, the abuses are being increasingly heard [2].


In 1962, Indonesia took over West Papua, formerly known as West Iryan, from its Dutch colonisers. Seven years later, a UN referendum for independence was held for the indigenous West Papuans, with 1.000 leaders selected to vote for the entire population. However, the Indonesian military threatened to kill anyone who voted for independence.  The vote was a formality, once again securing Indonesian power on the island. Many Papuans view the Indonesian takeover as an illegal annexation and the OPM (Free Papua Movement) has driven a low-level insurgency for years. This insurrection has long been the excuse for considerable Indonesian military involvement in West Papua [3].

Location of West Papua

West Papua

The OPM was founded in 1963 to advocate for the autonomy of West Papua, and it became increasingly militant. By the 1980s violence in West Papua had intensified into a low-intensity armed conflict, which continues to this day. As many as 100.000 people have been assassinated in subsequent years, mostly civilians killed by the Indonesian military. Although the OPM is well-established throughout West Papua, it is lightly armed – with most combatants not even having guns [4].

It is essential to emphasize that since the Dutch colonialism and until today, West Papua has been marginalized.  The Papuans are depicted as living in the stone age, and this apartness is often demonised [5]. They are Melanesians, a cultural and ethnic grouping which includes most of the people living in the Southwest Pacific –  different from Indonesians. At the same time, West Papua is a kind of resource-rich backcountry; an empty “treasury stock” for Indonesia, especially rich in gold and copper. Under Indonesian rule, West Papua has seen its significant oil, mineral, and timber wealth exploited by Indonesian and multi-national enterprises, with limited benefits and employment opportunities for the local population [6].

Human Rights Violations

Indonesian governance in West Papua has been characterised by its indiference to the views and interests of the local population. Indigenous Papuans have been subject to a range of systematic and widespread human rights abuses such as torture, extrajudicial killings, forced labour, forced displacement, rape, and forced disappearance [7]. Any mention of self-governance is brutally repressed by the Indonesian government.

There are plenty of manifestations of Indonesian oppression in West Papua. These constraints include arbitrary detention for months or even years, restricted movement in many areas for “security reasons”, censorship on the freedom of speech and assembly, and the requirement of obtaining a Surat Jalan (travel permit) before travelling to their West Papuan home villages. [8] In addition, the Indonesian government has undertaken transmigration and resettlement programmes, which also serve the purpose of undermining the self-determination of the local population by portraying them as a minority.

Indonesian authorities have also persistently blocked foreign media and rights monitors from going to Papua. Those restrictions defy an announcement made in 2015 by Indonesia’s President assuring that foreign media would have unobstructed access to the region. These decades-lasting access restrictions are embedded in the government’s suspicion of the purposes of foreigners for reporting on the territory – that besides the aforementioned small-scale independence insurgency, is the scenario for rampant corruption, environmental degradation, and public discontent with Indonesia.[9]


A Slow Genocide?

West Papuan people have been treated as the enemy by the Indonesian armed forces since the beginning of the occupation. Explicit and implicit government policy has been consistently directed towards countering and eliminating Papuan attempts to create an independent state for their nation or enjoy political freedom on a par with other Indonesians.

Since then, as mentioned earlier in this article, the West Papuan people have suffered persistent abuses. The Indonesian military and security forces have engaged in large-scale violence and extrajudicial killings in West Papua. They have inflicted Papuan civilians to torture, disappearance, rape, violence, hence provoking serious bodily and mental harm. Systematic resource exploitation, the destruction of Papuan resources, forced (often uncompensated) labour, transmigration programmes, and forced relocation have caused environmental damage to the area, impaired traditional subsistence practices, and provoked epidemic disease, malnutrition, inter alia. Holistically, such acts seem to constitute the imposition of living conditions calculated to cause the destruction of indigenous West Papuans. Even if the described crimes (torture, kidnapping, etc.) were not executed with the aim of eradicating West Papuans as a group, various of these acts constitute crimes against humanity under international law [10].

A Yale Law School paper, written for the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign, found “in the available evidence a strong indication that the Indonesian government has committed genocide against the West Papuans”. Further studies carried out by the University of Sydney allege that the continuity of ongoing praxis in West Papua “may pose serious threats to the survival of the indigenous people” [11]. Another study carried out by the University of Sydney states that the continuation of current practices in West Papua “may pose serious threats to the survival of the indigenous people of the Indonesian province of Papua” [12]. Many towns and villages have witnessed wholesale massacres of their people. One such example was the ‘Biak Massacre‘ in 1998, where over 200 people, including women and children, were caught by the Indonesian military, crammed onto vessels, taken and thrown into the sea [13].

While the conflict increases and repression of West Papuan “separatism” grows, the capacity to broadcast news of atrocities, public protests and leaders’ statements increases exponentially. This means that more attention is going to be paid on what is happening in West Papua, and how the conflict can be solved or alleviated. The “genocide” question is central in all of this. If Indonesia has only been able to hold West Papua within the Republic by engaging in genocidal acts, what does that foretell about the future?[14]


Melanesian in culture and language, West Papua’s strong Pacific link is why many island countries support their independence. Representatives from Nauru, Vanuatu, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Palau, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands have joined calls for the United Nations to investigate allegations of mass human rights abuses in West Papua. The seven Pacific nations are alleging there have been extrajudicial killings, and beatings of activists campaigning for the region’s sovereignty as part of the “Free West Papua” movement.

However, Indonesia has proved to effectively assemble international backing effectively as well. It is swiftly moving to the Pacific to gather support, plying promises of strong links and aid – which is working in some cases. For example, Fiji; after Indonesia’s strong pressuring approach and diplomatic and political leveraging, went from pro-independence to pro-Indonesian. Furthermore, Indonesia is strategically pivotal to New Zealand and Australia – being a crucial trading partner for both countries. By ignoring Indonesian army killings in West Papua, the Western states and press are tacitly colluding in mass murder [15].

On the national level, nearly no criminal investigations have been carried out by an institution independent of the one whose constituents were alleged of killing. Sometimes there is no investigation at all, or the results are not made public. Most families don’t receive regular updates about the outcome of any official investigation about a family member’s death. As for prosecutions, members of security forces who perpetrate illegal killings in West Papua have never been brought to an independent civilian court of law [16].

The Road Ahead

Indonesia’s oppression of West Papuans may be based on supremacist perceptions towards peoples named “primitive” rather than hatred, but this oppression still constitutes a calculated attack on the sustainability of the group. West Papuans do not consider themselves Indonesians and are not considered as such by other Indonesians.

The next question is how will the international community – given its responsibility to prevent genocide, and the crimes that might indicate one in West Papua – further react to the Indonesian oppression in the island, in compensation for good relations with Indonesia. Governments might be capable to “excuse” genocide or crimes against humanity in such a way, but the example of East Timor demonstrated that the public eventually will not. And how will Indonesia react if the West Papuan case gathers more support and relevance, taking into account its previous occupation of East Timor?

In this age of the internet, the claims of genocide being made by West Papuan leaders are being heard and believed, and it is gaining more and more relevance. This presents a considerable challenge for Indonesia in particular, and the Pacific region generally. Indonesia will face the difficult dilemma to either engage in serious negotiations with the West Papuans to try and devise a form of association that will address West Papuan grievances and aspirations and make them want to stay in the Indonesian Republic or to lose international support for their claims of sovereignty over West Papua [17].

Júlia Codina SARIOLS


[1] Anderson, K. (2015) “Colonialism and Cold Genocide: The Case of West Papua,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal: Vol. 9: Iss. 2: 9-25.
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5038/1911-9933.9.2.1270

[2] Day, R. (2015). West Papua and the Australia-Indonesia relationship: a case study in diplomatic difficulty. Australian Journal Of International Affairs, 69(6), 670-691. doi: 10.1080/10357718.2015.1052730

[3] Lamb, K., & Doherty, B. (2018). Banned West Papua independence petition handed to UN. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/27/banned-west-papua-independence-petition-un

[4] Elmslie, J., & Webb-Gannon, C. (2013). A slow-motion Genocide: Indonesian rule in West Papua. Griffith Journal Of Law And Human Dignity, 1(2), 142-165. Retrieved from https://griffithlawjournal.org/index.php/gjlhd/article/view/578/539

[5] Ibid [3]

[6] Ibid [1]

[7] Brundige, E. et al. (2004). Indonesian human rights abuses in West Papua. New Haven, Connecticut: Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic.  Retrieved from: https://law.yale.edu/system/files/documents/pdf/Intellectual_Life/West_Papua_final_report.pdf  

[8] Wing, J., & King, P. (2005). Genocide in West Papua? (p. 11). Sydney: West Papua Project.

[9] Ibid [4]

[10] Kine, P. (2018). Indonesia Shuts Out UN Rights Chief From Papua. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/19/indonesia-shuts-out-un-rights-chief-papua

[11] Ibid [3]

[12] Webb-Gannon, C. (2014). Merdeka in West Papua: Peace, Justice and Political Independence. Anthropologica, 56(2), 353-367. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/24467310?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

[13] Cordell, M. (2013). West Papuans tortured, killed and dumped at sea, citizens’ tribunal hears. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/13/west-papuans-tortured-killed-and-dumped-at-sea-tribunal-hears

[14] Elmslie, J., & Webb-Gannon, C. (2013). A slow-motion Genocide: Indonesian rule in West Papua. Griffith Journal Of Law And Human Dignity, 1(2), 142-165. Retrieved from https://griffithlawjournal.org/index.php/gjlhd/article/view/578/539

[15] Ibid [9]

[16] “Don’t bother, just let him die” Killing with impunity in West Papua. Amnesty International (2018).Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa21/8198/2018/en/

[17] Ibid [11]


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