18 Feb 2013

NZ parliament ban on activist draws attention to West Papua question

4:36 pm on 18 February 2013

A visit to New Zealand by a leading West Papuan activist has drawn attention to the festering issue of self-determination for the indigenous people of Indonesia's Papua region.

Benny Wenda is touring an international campaign for West Papuans' right to self-determination which he says has been denied to his people ever since the 1960s.

It's unlikely that his visit to New Zealand would have gained as much media coverage as it did, had it not been for the decision by the Speaker of Parliament to ban Benny Wenda from speaking at parliament.

Johnny Blades reports:

Benny Wenda has been living in the UK since escaping from Indonesia in 2003 after being arrested for promoting West Papuan independence.

In 2011, Interpol issued a red alert on him at the request of Indonesia but, after an investigation, it was removed last year.

Free to travel again, Benny Wenda had been touring widely, sharing his people's experiences of rape, torture and murder by security forces and the militarisation of his homeland.

"I never go back to West Papua. If I go back (now) I'm a dead man so (I'll wait) until my people are free and I'm free. I just want to go a free man and see my people."

Touring with Benny Wenda is the international human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson, known for her work representing Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Ms Robinson had been working in Papua a decade ago when she met Mr Wenda, incarcerated in solitary conditions as a political prisoner.

Inspired by his and other West Papuans' commitment to freedom in the face of ongoing violence in the Indonesian region, Ms Robinson helped establish the International Lawyers for West Papua movement.

She says calls for West Papuan self-determination have a sound legal basis and cannot be silenced.

Of course Indonesia has avoided any sort of international ajudication on the issue because they know that they're in the wrong. Legally speaking, West Papua is in the right, and has the right to self-determination that was denied to them in 1969. International law is on their side. The difficulty is getting it into an international forum where that matter can be decided.

That difficulty was demonstrated in the New Zealand context when the country's new speaker of parliament refused to allow Mr Wenda the chance to speak about the plight of West Papuans at parliament.

David Carter's refusal stems from advice he says he received from government officials deeming the Wenda visit inappropriate.

Subsequent fallout from the speaker's decision meant that the West Papua question has had unprecedented exposure in New Zealand mainstream media.

The Green MP, Catherine Delahunty, accused the Speaker of going against the spirit of Parliament.

It's not good enough to just say well you can do this in your caucus room. I wanted to hold a forum which included other political parties where they have shown an interest in this issue. This is an issue which basically is the dirty secret of the Pacific that no one wants to talk about. The facility called parliament belongs to all parliamentarians and, without fear or favour, we should be able to hold events in this facility.

Another opposition MP, Labour's Maryan Street, was also disappointed.

He is a representative of West Papuans. He is recognised internationally as that. He has been a guest of the UK parliament, the European Union parliament and a guest at the United Nations. Why can't he be hosted at the New Zealand parliament even if the government does not agree with his position? The issue of independence of West Papua from Indonesia is very sensitive for Indonesia. It's like talking about Tibet for the Chinese. I'm very aware of those sensitivities. But there's no reason why this man's perspective should not be heard in parliament which is meant to represent multiple voices, not just the voice of government.

New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, denies he advised the Speaker to place the ban on Benny Wenda.

Mr McCully says his office advised a couple of MPs of the ruling National Party against co-sponsoring the proposed event but the new Speaker, David Carter, was not one of them.

We've worked very hard over some years now to insure that the human rights agenda is moved forward in Indonesia, particularly in West Papua. We have quite an active dialogue with the Indonesian authorities about human rights issues and I want to engage in that sort of diplomacy, not megaphone diplomacy - and that's what I think was being suggested here.

Benny Wenda ended up giving his address on West Papua at the Victoria University Law School, just across the road from parliament.

After their speeches, he and Jennifer Robinson fielded questions.

Amid those contributing to some heated discussion was Indonesia's ambassador in New Zealand Antonius Agus Sriyono.

The ambassador told the audience that reports of violence in Papua were exaggerated.

Referring to the dubious UN-sanctioned Act of Free Choice under which West New Guinea was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969, Sriyono said that the world cannot turn back the clock and change history.

Indonesian officials claim outside access to Papua is restricted because of the dangers posed in a region where separatism and tribal conflict demand a military presence.

Benny Wenda claims Jakarta tries to discredit Papuan groups actively pushing for self-determination as willing participants in ongoing violence.

Only this is the safe way to campaign for peace and the world could hear our cry for freedom so that's why when they come out in their peaceful way, Indonesia creates violence to discrimenate them, (label them) this violent group or this terrorist group, whatever. But actually not. It's Indonesia which is creating then violence in West Papua.

Jennifer Robinson claims there is increasing international awareness of Papua despite an effective ban on foreign media and a crackdown on civil society operations in the region.

But unfortunately for Indonesia, it's counter-productive for them to cut off information. They continue to assert that these allegations of human rights violations are exaggerated or overstated. If that's the case, then let international organisations and journalists verify the fact, that can only improve the situation.

Murray McCully says Indonesia has made great progress in addressing human rights issues, but there's still work to be done in Papua.

However the Minister has been urged by the New Zealand based Indonesian Human Rights Committee to send a multi-party fact finding mission to Papua.

It says there is a clear precedent with a similar group, led by a National Party MP, visiting East Timor in 1994 when it was still under Indonesian occupation.