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We need a pulpit perspective on Papua


Members of regional parliaments are increasingly alarmed at the continuing violence in the Indonesian Papuan provinces and at the seeming inability of the Indonesian Government to administer these territories without a large military presence. The refusal of permission for journalists and many aid workers to enter the provinces is a growing cause of concern.

On Tuesday 28 February the Australia-Pacific chapter of International Parliamentarians for West Papua (IPWP) was launched at Parliament House, hosted by the Greens and attended by some parliamentarians. It is worrying that acting Minister for Foreign Affairs Craig Emerson told Labor MPs not to attend (a rightly ignored by some of the more lion-hearted, including Laurie Ferguson).

That the Greens organised the meeting and that Labor recognises West Papua as an integral part of the Indonesian Republic are not sufficient reasons to expect Australian MPs to ignore the serious human rights abuses on our doorstep.

Letters to our Government by frustrated Australians are answered for the most part by reminders that we recognise the territorial sovereignty of Indonesia, that internal security is a matter for the Indonesians themselves, that the situation in West Papua and Papua is improving, that Australia is dedicated to the promotion of human rights everywhere and that we continue to train the Indonesian military because they are our partners in the region and we help to raise their standards.

This official line fits the Australian-Indonesian partnership, but ignores the Papuan people. The rights of nation-states are not absolute, and where there is engagement in systematic maltreatment of people, no matter where, the rest of the world has an obligation to protest.

There is noble rhetoric in claims that Australia condemns human rights abuses and urges investigation of them. But this is not the experience of the Australian-East Timor relationship.

The previous Australian Government dismissed the findings of the 2005 CAVR Report on the crimes against humanity in East Timor as containing 'errors' (read: accusations against Australia). Official Australian comment on this very large human rights document thereby evaporated, and the recommendations concerning Australia have languished ever since.

After such inaction, what evidence is there that the Australian Government deplores abuse of the Papuan people, or urges investigation into allegations, as it claims in its official answers to letters? Who is urging investigation of crimes against humanity committed in West Papua? Who asks the concrete questions? Where are the reports? Who actually does this work?

More power to the members of the IPWP, and may more Australian parliamentarians give some leadership here after they look into the massacres, the torture, the sham trials, the military abuses and the money trail.

However there are more players in this saga. Where are the churches? There are a few groups and individuals who anguish about the Papuan people, as there are in Parliament, and who see such concern as an obligation flowing from the Gospel. What leadership is offered by the churches? Does the Papuan situation ever make it to the pulpit? 

The parallels between the treatment of the West Papuan people and that given to the East Timorese are compelling. How can these things continue on our doorstep?

One of the reasons is the impunity that Indonesia enjoys, shown in the complete lack of responsibility taken for what happened in Timor-Leste between 1974 and 1999.

That period saw the violent deaths of 183,000 Timorese men, women and children, which occurred as a result of the brutal Indonesian occupation. The establishment of an ad hoc Human Rights Court and a Truth and Friendship Commission in its wake brought no one to justice. No one has been held accountable. This has resulted in a further vacuum of human responsibility in West Papua. 

 Australia might claim some small refuge in ignorance regarding Timor, but as we now know what Indonesia did there and how responsibility has been successfully evaded, we cannot claim any wide-eyed innocence regarding West Papua. 

Susan ConnellySusan Connelly is a western Sydney-based Sister of St Joseph who for many years has been the prime mover in the advocacy work of the Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission.

Topic tags: Susan Connelly, West Papua, East Timor



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Existing comments

Congratulations to Susan on her excellent article. It should not be forgotten that Australia helps train the Indonesian military. In replies to letters to the government from the Australia West Papua Association concerning our ties with the Indonesian military, the Australian Government states that “ the Australian Defence Force provides ongoing training to the Indonesian military that emphasizes human rights awareness, accountability and respect for the rule of law. We believe that our support for increased professionalism within Indonesia’s security forces will continue to result in improvements to their human rights record”. The ongoing human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian security forces in West Papua show this policy is a failure. As Komnas HAM (National Commission on Human Rights ) reported they, “looked into 58 alleged violations of human rights in 2011, and was anticipating investigating at least that many cases in 2012”, and, ?“In almost 65 percent of human rights violation cases in Papua, the perpetrators are TNI [Indonesian Armed Forces] and National Police members”.

Joe Collins | 02 March 2012  

I read you article with great interest, but when you write 'Where are the churches?' you probably meant Australian Churches, as the churches in West Papua often stand up for the Papuan population, No journalists being allowed into West Papua, also means that news about the churches there doesn't often gets out.

john stuyfbergen | 02 March 2012  

Well, at least the Catholic Leader had a full-page article on West Papua recently. But I agree, there should be much more shouting about the situation. A big part of the problems in many areas of the world today is that the European colonial powers, in this case The Netherlands, Britain and Germany, seem to have had some sort of divine right to determine international boundaries for all eternity. As long as this continues entire peoples will remain oppressed. It seems hopeless, but we must pray and speak up for these peoples.

Gavan Breen | 02 March 2012  

Thanks, John Stuyfbergen, I certainly meant "Australian Churches". There is much courage of conviction within the Papuan Churches.

Much the same thing happened in East Timor. In the early 1980s the Religious Orders got a letter taken out through a Conference which said that "the heaviest blow" was the silence of the international Church on their plight.

There's a letter in this morning's Herald which suggests that the Papuans should wear cow costumes, seeing that there is so much public furore (and rightly so) about the treatment of cattle in Indonesia.

Susan Connelly | 03 March 2012  

According to Christian Tradition, Jesus started life as a Middle-Eastern refugee.
Given the long well-known treatment by Indonesia of people (and cattle), why is there no pulpit confrontation of the Liberal policy of towing boat-loads of refugees back to Indonesia?

It's not as if we can't afford to process them here. On a per capita basis, we have probably the greatest proportion of wealth of natural resources and territory of any country in the world.

Robert Liddy | 03 March 2012  

Here is a good piece in last week's Jakarta Post by Budi Hernawan. See http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2012/03/01/leadership-slows-antigraft-move.html-0. Budi is a Franciscan friar and former director of the Office of Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church in Jayapura, Papua. He is currently pursuing a doctorate at the Australian National University.

Frank Brennan SJ | 04 March 2012  

Well done. If these abuses on our doorstep are not brought before the scrutiny of decent people then governments can with impunity pursue policy on our behalf that we, had we known, would find repugnant in its expediency.

graham patison | 11 March 2012  

of course Australia wont help the pupuans, they condone the indonesian occupation as they also stand to gain from the vast mineral wealth, because the pupuans would use the mineral wealth to build their country and Australia and indonesia wont get anything for free, Australians look like fools with our selective support of human rights causes, either your for or againts human rights abuses, or your confused because your not sure if your willing to give up the benefits your gaining, Australia is becoming disgusting, such a devaluing of the Australian morals of "a fair go" because of the all mighty dollar, if your decisions for this country are based on economics your not Australian, just greedy

Sam | 13 March 2012