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Description :
The West Papuan people have been engaged in a long conflict with the Indonesian government over self determination, control of resources and increasing environmental degradation.
Full Text :

West Papua, (Indonesia’s eastern most province), is situated geographically next to Papua New Guinea. Like Papua New Guinea, the indigenous people are Melanesian, with a distinct cultural identity and heritage. The West Papuan people have been engaged in a long conflict with the Indonesian government over self determination, control of resources and increasing environmental degradation. As the international community becomes increasingly alarmed at the human rights abuses perpetrated by sections of the Indonesian military and militias, and the impact of the world’s largest goldmine in this region; the spotlight again falls on the West Papuan struggle for self-determination.


West Papua, like Indonesia, was a Dutch colony but it did not become part of the newly independent Indonesia in 1949. The Dutch retained control of the colony, arguing that the Papuan people were culturally and ethnically different. Against the protests of West Papuans, the UN approved the New York Agreement in 1962, which allowed the territory to move from Dutch to Indonesian control following a referendum. However, by 1963 Indonesia had already assumed control over West Papua. The ‘Morning Star’ flag and the West Papuan national anthem were banned as Indonesian troops and officials waged an ongoing campaign of intimidation (Wing & King, 2005). Indonesian President Suharto warned the West Papuans that voting against integration would be an act of ‘treason’. Instead of a direct ballot 1025 local officials were ‘selected’ to vote from a population of 816,000. (CRS Report for Congress, Jan 19 2006) Prominent West Papuans likely to protest were placed under detention. This undermined the legitimacy of the 1969 “Act of Free Choice”. UN documents and government reports have since documented the intimidation, coercion and lack of representation involved. According to the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) declassified documents released in 2004 indicate that the US was aware that between 85 - 90% of West Papuans were opposed to Indonesian rule and a free vote would result in West Papuan independence. The US considered it “necessary” to maintain support for Suharto’s Indonesia during the Cold War (CRS Report for Congress, Jan 19 2006) to stop the spread of Communism. The UN was complicit and failed to assist the people of Papua to gain an opportunity for self determination. Some commentators claim the US rubber-stamped the Indonesian takeover of West Papua to open the way for mining companies such as Freeport to extract vast wealth from the region (Carlton, SMH, April 8 2006). The pro-independence Free Papua Movement (OPM) emerged at this time and faced swift persecution. Indonesia declared the “province of Papua” a “military operation zone” and freedom of movement or expression of cultural identity were considered separatist and punishable by torture or death. Speaking out for justice, just treatment or concerns about the appropriation of land by Jakarta-based companies “led to accusations of separatism justifying military repression…” (Wing & King, 2005:1)

Human Rights Issues

Since the 1970’s, Indonesian security forces and militia have carried out well documented human rights violations in the name of development and national security. Peaceful demonstrations for dialogue and self-determination during the late 1990s were met with greater military force and thousands of new troops in the region. In 2004 a Yale University Law School Report concluded that “the Indonesian Government has acted with the necessary intent to find that it has perpetrated genocide against the people of West Papua” (Brundige et al, 2004:5). However, this report further argues that if the “intent to destroy West Papuans as a group” is not proven in accordance with the Genocide Convention, “many of these acts clearly constitute crimes against humanity under international law” (Brundige et al, 2004:1). John Wing and Peter King in a report for the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University, Genocide in West Papua?, argue that it is not just a question of the intent concerning genocide; it is the cumulative effect of widespread and continuing military repression, racism and xenophobia, underdevelopment and the collusion of the military and multi-national companies in securing economic interests (2005). The Indonesian Government has been critical of reports of human rights abuse. It claims West Papua is an essential part of a united Indonesia and that human rights advocates are interfering in Indonesian internal affairs by supporting the independence movement. However, Deakin University lecturer Scott Burchill argues that voicing concern for human rights is different to advocating independence. He claims the issue for outsiders is that West Papuans should have the right to decide their own political arrangements especially when faced with state violence and exploitation (2006). Human rights activists and church leaders in Papua are increasingly targeted for speaking out. Leaders of groups that raise human rights concerns, such as the Institute for Human Rights and Advocacy (ELSHAM), Aliansi Demokrasi Papua (ALDP), TRITON Foundation and the Office of Justice and Peace Sorong, are among those who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. Despite Indonesia’s adoption of specific human rights resolutions, a non-government report in 2005 refers to many cases of torture, arbitrary arrest, detention and displacement being documented. The authors raise concerns about the lack of due process, extra-judicial killings reported in villages and the stigma of separatism imposed on individuals or institutions “that the security forces consider to be suspicious” (UNStatement, February 2005). International church leaders are speaking out all over the world and are doing so because of the disturbing and continuing evidence for human rights violations in West Papua.

Special Autonomy Laws

In 2001 Indonesia passed a “Special Autonomy” law as a half way measure to provide the province some level of independence. The laws granted a degree of self-government and directed tax revenues to the local administration. However, there has been little evidence that taxes are benefiting West Papuans. The Megawati Government attempted to divide the province into three in 2003 but the Constitutional Court ruled this illegal under Special Autonomy laws. The Constitutional Court did allow the division of West Papua into two provinces, Western Irian Jaya and “Papua”. Despite this the Yudhoyono Government is now proposing to separate West Papua into five provinces by 2009, thus further undermining “Special Autonomy” in the future (CRS,2006:11). The Indonesian Government’s decision to appoint a Papuan People’s Council has also angered many West Papuan leaders who have formed their own body, (Papua Customary Council) separate from Indonesian influence (CRS, 2006). Many of West Papua’s tribal and religious leaders see the watering down of ‘Special Autonomy’ as another betrayal, while many others are concerned about sectarianism, corruption, the spread of HIV/AIDS and the destruction of natural resources (Progressio, 2005). “The Indonesian Government has not fully implemented the 2001 Special Autonomy law which was designed to address political and economic grievances” in Papua (US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric G John, quoted in CRS Report, 2006).

Exploiting Resources – Multinationals in West Papua

Health, education and development indicators reveal that despite vast natural resource wealth, West Papuans continue to be among the poorest people in Indonesia and in the region. Under the Special Autonomy law 70% of oil and gas royalties and 80% of mining, forestry and fishing royalties are supposed to go to West Papua. Freeport McMoRan operates the world’s largest gold and second largest copper mine in West Papua providing an estimated billion in direct and indirect benefits between 1992 and 2004 to the wealth of Indonesia and paid in excess of billion in taxes, royalties and dividends in 2005 (CRS, 2006). Freeport reported in the New York Times that it has spent 0 million on a partnership fund for community development since 1996. It is unclear how this has benefited West Papua. Freeport will generate an estimated 6 billion tons of waste before completion of operations affecting “ground water, rivers and low lying wet land rendering them, according to one study, unsuitable for aquatic life” (CRS, 2006). Although Freeport argues that it spent .7 million in 2004 on environmental management and social development, tribal groups and Western activists have continually accused Freeport of environmental degradation. More alarming is Freeport’s relationship with the Indonesian military (TNI). Since 1996 Freeport has made direct monthly payments to Indonesian military officers and police units, who received “close to million between 1998 and 2004” (CRS, 2006).Franciscans International report the military presence has led to increased trafficking in women and children, prostitution, and the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS amid a growing problem of alcoholism, violence against women and children and a decline in health standards in West Papua (UN Statement, 2005). As health and education rapidly decline the humanitarian situation becomes increasingly dire, despite promises that the resources for development are available. Indonesia’s failure to address issues of self determination continues to ensure that international attention remains on West Papua. Recent reports of the escalation of the military with 15,000 additional troops to be based in West Papua from 2005 to 2009 are generating increasing fear and instability in the region. For a peaceful solution Indonesia must address issues of injustice, rights and development.

Just Action

  • Read up on the situation in West Papua. A good starting point would be to download the Progressio Comment - West Papua: The struggle for peace with justice (Country Programs West Papua)
  • Robert F Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights
  • The Jakarta Post
  • Faith-Based Network on West Papua Geneva Appeal on West Papua ‘Papua, Land of Peace’ 


• John Wing & Peter King, (2005) Genocide in West Papua? Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney

Joint Statement by Papuan Religious Leaders, (Sept 2005) Catholic Institute for International Relations(CIIR) [Progressio] 

•Franciscans International et al, (Feb 2005) Question of the Violation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in any part of the World, joint statement to UN Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights 61st session, Item 9.

Bruce Vaughn ( Jan 2006), Papua, Indonesia: Issues for Congress, Congressional Research service, the US Library of Congress

• Brundige, E., King, W., Vahali, P., Vladeck, S. & Yuan, X. (2004) Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the law of Genocide to the history of Indonesian Control, A paper prepared for the Indonesian Human Rights Network, Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School

Further Sources

• Sign up to electronic newsgroups on West Papua such as or

• Read up on the situation in West Papua. A good starting point would be to download the Progressio Comment - West Papua: The struggle for peace with justice (760k PDF). New Internationalist Robert F Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights West Papua Action [Irish]
East Timor and Indonesia Action Network 
The Jakarta Post  Free West Papua Movement
WestPan Canada’s West Papua Action Network 
West Papua Action Network 
John Barr, (2005) Current Situation – West Papua Updates Uniting International Mission
Scott Burchill West Papua, Refugees & Australia 
SBS DateLine West Papua Militia 
Faith-Based Network on West Papua Geneva Appeal on West Papua ‘Papua, Land of Peace’
The Situation of Human Rights in Papua, Indonesia

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