Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Maire Leadbeater: On the brink of genocide

When the Pacific Islands Forum leaders met recently they talked a lot about being more inclusive. They even decided to upgrade New Caledonia and French Polynesia from observer to associate status.

But despite being literally next door to the Forum host country, Papua New Guinea, West Papua did not even rate a mention in their communique.

There was no lack of information. West Papuan representatives mounted a strong campaign, and Vanuatu tried to raise the issue.

But the people of West Papua are out of the international spotlight - just as the East Timorese were until the cataclysm of violence in 1999.

Like the East Timorese, their fate was determined back in the days of the Cold War when Western nations, New Zealand included, decided that Suharto was their preferred alternative to a left-leaning administration.

In practice that meant conceding to Indonesia the right to annex the western half of the island of New Guinea, despite the fact that its Melanesian people had little in common with the rest of Indonesia.

In 1969 there was a sham referendum, absurdly called an "Act of Free Choice", but only 1022 hand-picked representatives were allowed to vote.

Human rights groups estimate that this decision has cost the lives of at least 100,000 West Papuan people, and few would deny that the territory is ruled by dint of fear and deep repression.

Earlier this year two men were jailed for 10 and 15 years for daring to raise the banned West Papuan flag at a demonstration.

There are ongoing military operations in the remote highlands and just before the Forum met the troops were reinforced with hundreds of additional soldiers.

Even if moral and humane principles are not part of the foreign policy equation, there are many urgent self-interest grounds which should cause Pacific nations to think again about West Papua.

For example, there is the regional environment impact of Indonesia's exploitation of West Papua's resources. The forests are fast disappearing.

There is no up-to-date independent monitoring of the Grasberg mine of Freeport-McMoran near Timika, the world's richest gold and copper mine.

Back in 1994 a report by Enviro Search International suggested that the tailings were devastating the local river system and would eventually reach the ocean.

Current satellite photos on "Google maps" clearly show what can only be the tailings' plume from the crushing of 220,000 metric tonnes of rock a day flowing into the Arafura Sea.

West Papua has become the focal point of a deadly new HIV/Aids epidemic. The Indonesian Department of Health reports that West Papua has the highest Aids incidence of any province, including Jakarta.

It is believed that the virus entered Papua with Thai fishermen in the early 1990s and the rise in reported cases, which only represent a tiny fraction of the true incidence, has been dramatic. Only 15 cases were reported in 1996 but in June 2005, 1170 were recorded.

A Sydney-based researcher, John Wing, of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, found that HIV infected prostitutes brought into West Papua from Java contributed to the escalating infection rates.

The Pan Pacific Aids Conference held in Auckland paid much attention to the Aids crisis in Papua New Guinea and to the concerted campaign there to combat the spread of the disease. Speakers warned that the problem in Papua New Guinea could reach African proportions in five years if left unchecked.

However, West Papua was off the official radar until West Papuan delegate Dolly Zonggonau put forward the facts.

Based on the estimated numbers of those living with Aids, West Papua with an estimated 11,000 people has an incidence rate at least one and half times greater than that of Papua New Guinea. The impact of the HIV/Aids epidemic in West Papua on the indigenous people is one of the reasons why two recent academic reports have stated that the human rights problem is approaching one of genocide.

It is beyond belief that Pacific leaders can talk about regional co-operation and security while ignoring a human tragedy of this dimension.

* Maire Leadbeater is a spokesperson for the Indonesia Human Rights Committee.


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