What is the Indonesian government hiding in Papua?
That’s the question raised by the government’s seeming refusal to make good on an official invitation promised to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, to visit Papua and West Papua provinces (collectively referred to as “Papua”).
On Monday, Zeid issued a statement saying he is “concerned that despite positive engagement by the authorities in many respects, the Government’s invitation to my Office to visit Papua – which was made during my visit in February – has still not been honoured.”
The Indonesian government’s apparent unwillingness to allow Zeid to investigate human rights conditions in Papua should come as no surprise. Indonesian authorities have consistently blocked foreign journalists and rights monitors from visiting Papua. Those restrictions defy an announcement made in 2015 by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi – that accredited foreign media would have unimpeded access to Papua. The decades-old access restrictions on Papua are rooted in government suspicion of the motives of foreign nationals for reporting on the region, which is troubled by a small-scale pro-independence insurgency, widespread corruption, environmental degradation, and public dissatisfaction with Jakarta. Security forces are rarely held to account for abuses against critics of the government, including the killing of peaceful protesters.
The limbo of Zeid’s Papua invitation has dampened hopes raised in March 2017, after the government allowed a UN health expert to make a two-day official visit to Papua, that Indonesia would end its reflexive prohibition on travel to the region by foreign human rights monitors. Instead, Zeid’s experience is reminiscent of 2013, when then-UN independent expert on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, was blocked from visiting Indonesia. Diplomatic sources in Geneva told La Rue that the Indonesian government froze his requested visit due to his inclusion of Papua in his proposed itinerary. “They said, ‘Great, we’ll get back to you,’” La Rue told Human Rights Watch. “What it meant was that they postponed the dates and put the trip off indefinitely.”
It’s clear that parts of the Indonesian government remain hostile to the idea of greater transparency in the region. Yet granting reporters and human rights monitors access to Papua is an essential element of ensuring the rights of Papuans are respected.