This month marks the 58th anniversary of the 1962 New York Agreement pertaining to governance of the territory of West New Guinea (West Papua). Whilst Indonesians consider this a celebratory time of unity, the leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), Benny Wenda, has called for ‘days of mourning’ to mark 58 years of occupation and colonisation.
Colonised by the Netherlands at the end of the 19th Century and despite various international efforts in the preceding years, West Papuan indigenous people have failed to attain what they believe a democratic society would consider a fair vote on independence and self- governance. Whilst Indonesia became an independent nation in 1949, West Papua continued to remain under Dutch control, and the Indonesian invasion in the early 60s coupled with the resulting animosity between the Dutch, Indonesians and the indigenous West Papuans led to the US orchestrating a meeting between the governments, bringing about the New York Agreement. The 1962 Agreement, which was constructed without any involvement of the West Papuans, handed control of West Papua to the UN, and eventually Indonesia, with the provision that a referendum take place to afford the indigenous population a right to vote on their future governance.
Following 7 years of Indonesian governance, the supposed UN supervised referendum known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’, undertaken in 1969, only appears to have added further fuel to the fire. It is argued that politics at the UN assembly wrongly allowed for ratification of the referendum vote, which only evidenced just over 1000 votes (0.25%) being cast from a population of one million, and questions of threats of violence against voters and their families being raised.
Fifty years post ratification, the UN continues to receive criticism for its role in the 1969 Act of Free Choice and its repercussions for West Papuans living under occupation. It has been estimated that as many as 500,00 West Papuans have been killed by Indonesian security forces since Indonesia assumed power, in what the Free West Papua Campaign labels ‘the secret genocide’, and although the number reached their peak in the 70s, renewed activism and nationalist movements in recent times has contributed to a rise in civilian deaths.
The billion dollar income generated from the rich West Papuan mineral deposits must also not be discounted in the international political intervention that is clearly required to support a resolution. Since mining began in West Papua in the early 70s, indigenous tribes claim their communities have become impoverished and oppressed, as their livelihood is dependent on healthy environmental surroundings. West Papuans are also facing threats to the availability of jobs, due to the Indonesian government’s migration schemes that have seen the number of ethnic Papuans fall to an estimated 29% in 2020, according to the Guardian.
However, with continued demonstrations taking place over the next few weeks to protest the New York Agreement, it is clear that stronger international political attention must be drawn to such a pressing humanitarian issue, and furthermore, what are the UN’s plans to resolve the current state of affairs?