JAKARTA: Activists in Indonesia’s mountainous jungle-clad Papua region risked imprisonment to collect 1.8 million signatures for a petition calling for self-determination but were then faced by a final hurdle: being blocked from presenting it to the intended recipient, the United Nations.
An attempt to present the petition in 2017 to the UN committee responsible for monitoring the progress of colonised territories toward independence was rebuffed.
The chairman of the committee said it couldn’t be accepted because Papua was not part of its mandate.
Highlighting the risks of the endeavour, an activist promoting the petition was arrested by Indonesian authorities in 2017 and sentenced the following year to 10 months in prison.
He was arrested again this month along with several others who face treason charges.
Last week they succeeded, aided by the diplomatic equivalent of a wink and a nod from the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, which has championed the Papuan cause.
Vanuatu officials had a scheduled meeting last Friday in Geneva with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Among them was an exiled Papuan leader, Benny Wenda, who presented the voluminous petition to Bachelet.
“During this meeting, one member of the Vanuatu delegation, Mr. Benny Wenda, presented the high commissioner with a petition.
“This was not actually a meeting arranged with Mr Wenda for that purpose,” said Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesman at the UN Human Rights Office.
Bachelet “was not aware” in advance, she said.
The United Liberation Movement for West Papua sent The Associated Press a photo of Wenda passing the petition to a smiling Bachelet.
Indonesia reacted angrily, accusing Vanuatu of “taking manipulative steps through the infiltration of Benny Wenda into the Vanuatu delegation.”
An insurgency has simmered in Papua since the early 1960s when Indonesia annexed the region, which had remained under Dutch control following Indonesia’s 1945 declaration of independence from the Netherlands.
Last month, rebels killed 19 people working on a construction site for a trans-Papua highway in the deadliest attack in years. — AP
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