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Ben Wray – Western corporations and states are complicit in West Papua’s “human and environmental catastrophe”

West Papua is experiencing a “human and environmental catastrophe which no one should be indifferent”, seven judges on the Permanent People’s Tribunal on West Papua found on 27-29 June.

The interim verdict of the Tribunal called on the United Nations to initiate an “urgent” and “sizeable” investigation due to the “severe deterioration in the lives of West Papuans in recent years.”

It came at the end of three days of hearings in London, in which 17 West Papuans gave evidence from West Papua via video link. Cases documented included extra-judicial killings, land dispossession, torture, destruction of natural habitats, state racism and repression of political speech, all committed by Indonesian authorities.

The witnesses who gave testimony live from West Papua did so from ‘safe rooms’ in a bid to protect them from potential repercussions by Indonesian police for participating in the proceedings.

Indonesia has ruled West Papua, a former Dutch colony, since 1963, with a sham referendum held in 1969 on West Papuan independence. Indigenous Papuans have been resisting Indonesian occupation and demanding self-determination ever since. Estimates of the number of West Papuans who have been killed by Indonesian forces since the 1960s range from 100,000 to 500,000, in a process which some experts have called a “slow motion genocide”. 

The Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) was established in the 1970s to highlight cases of human rights abuses which have not been adequately addressed by the international community, including UN legal bodies like the International Court of Justice. It has ruled on 46 cases and its work is based on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of of Peoples.

The West Papua PPT was organised by the Queen Mary University of London’s Department of Climate Crime and Climate Justice, which has identified West Papua as an important case of ‘ecocide’ – destruction of the natural environment by deliberate action – in which global corporations and the world’s most powerful states are complicit.

West Papua contains the third largest rainforest in the world and is one of the most biodiverse territory’s on the planet. The land is also rich in gold, nickel, gas and many other in-demand raw materials, a ‘resource curse’ which has led Indonesia to pursue an extractive model of economic development in the territory hand-in-hand with global capital, at the expense of West Papuan lives and ancestral lands. 

Prosecution case and evidence

The prosecution put forward four charges against the Indonesian state to the PPT judges in its indictment

  • That the state takes “the ancestral land of the Indigenous Papuan people against their will”, a land-grabbing which is based on “racial discrimination”;
  • That the state conducts “violent repression”, including extra-judicial killing and population displacement, as a “means of furthering industrial development”;
  • That the state commits “organised environmental degradation”, including the destruction of eco-systems and the contamination of land;
  • And finally that “national and foreign companies” are “colluding” with the state in all of the above.

Testimony from West Papuans and international experts backed up all four charges.

Land-grabbing

The majority of West Papuans have links to specific land in West Papua based on their own tradition of land ownership which is known as customary land rights. While Indonesia’s legal system in theory respects customary land rights, in practise these are ridden rough-shod over as national and international corporations grab land for development.

One witness spoke about the Indonesian company PT Inti Kebun Sejahtera, which operates in Southwest Papua and has cleared 2,000 hectares of forest this year alone to make way for palm-oil plantations.

“We have come to the conclusion that there is no future for us any more here,” the witness said. “Because the state is always in favour of grabbing our land, they give the company the permit in the first place.”

Another witness from the Maybrat area, where there has been armed conflict between resistance forces and the state, spoke about how her village was occupied and her home turned into a military post with no compensation, leaving her internally displaced. 

“We will die from illness due to the pressure of the situation rather than bombs or bullets,” she said.

A pastor gave testimony about the process in which palm-oil and sugar cane plantations are established on West Papuan land.

“Corporations involve Papuans at the beginning stage, but once they get what they want the indigenous people are marginalised. They are given positions, like a foreman for instance, and then fired after a few months. They say Papuan people are stupid, not educated enough. 

“We feel like we don’t belong to this country. The state wants our forest, our ocean, our land, but it doesn’t want the people.”

Jim Elmslie from the University of Wollongong’s West Papua Project delivered a detailed analysis of the changing face of the West Papuan territory, finding that the coastal regions are now dominated by Indonesian migrants, with the highlands in the centre of the country still indigenous Papuan. In the highlands, the “Indonesian security apparatus continues to grow to take control of territory and facilitate resource extraction in particular”. 

“Economic development is leading to the marginalisation of Papuans and increasing independence grievances,” Elmslie concluded.

Violent repression

The repression of West Papuans has a 60 year history but recent years have been particularly bloody as the conflict between the Indonesian military and police forces and indigenous Papuans has intensified. Between January 2018 and June 2024, Amnesty International Indonesia recorded 128 unlawful killings and a death toll of at least 236 civilians.

The judges heard testimony from several massacres ranging over a 20 year period, a common theme of which was almost complete impunity for the Indonesian state perpetrators. 

Eben Kirksey, a University of Oxford professor, bore witness to the Biak massacre in 1998 while on a research trip to West Papua as an undergraduate student. He told the judges that he saw bodies loaded onto a naval ship and dumped in the sea. Despite detailed evidence of the massacre provided to a US Congressional hearing in 2010, the Indonesian judiciary said there was insufficient evidence for an investigation.

“I have been following the West Papua case for 25 years and the neo-colonialism hasn’t changed in that time,” Kirksey told the Tribunal.

Herlambang Wiratraman, an Indonesian law professor, spoke about political repression in West Papua, finding that there is “no freedom of expression or freedom of the press”, nor do indigenous West Papuans have the right to organise demonstrations, while anyone who does dissent is labelled “a separatist”. 

A West Papuan activist spoke about his imprisonment for organising protests against racism. The conditions in jail led to him becoming seriously ill and he was denied health treatment. Another activist spoke about how he was jailed for a year for pro-independence campaigning and was kept in a prison specially designed for “terrorists”. 

One activist speaking anonymously said that many activists are in prison under charges of “treason”, which can be for basic political activities like holding a public meeting, raising the Morning Star flag or online posts criticising the government. A four-year prison sentence can be dished out for ‘spreading communism’, while internet shutdowns have been frequent in areas where resistance fighters are thought to be operating in. 

Jacob Smith from Rights and Security International, spoke about the think-tank’s report, Exporting Prevent, which was published earlier this year and found that the UK Government is complicit in human rights violations in West Papua because of its role in training Indonesian military and police. 

He told the tribunal that the UK, US and Australia were the main international actors involved in Indonesia on a security basis, with a specific focus on ‘counter-terrorism’ training. The UK Government has claimed this training doesn’t relate to West Papua but, given that the territory is the primary ‘security concern’ for the Indonesian state, Smith said that “it’s not clear how they could make that assessment.”

Repressive measures cited in ‘Exporting Prevent’ include a mobilisation of 6,500 military personnel to stop a student mobilisation of West Papuans from taking place. One student was shot at the protest. 

“The UK Government risks breaching international law by being complicit in human rights violations,” Smith concluded.

One student spoke of her harassment by Indonesian police, who told her not to wear dreadlocks, a typical hair style of indigenous Papuans and asked her “have you ever talked about ‘Free Papua?’” 

Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch Indonesia said there are systemic constraints on the ability of journalists and NGOs to access West Papua, with requests often denied or never responded to. Those who do get in often experience arbitrary arrest and detention, with even a BBC journalist being detained for 17 hours. Indigenous Papuan journalists face violence and intimidation. In the rest of Indonesia, little is known about the reality of colonial violence in West Papua.

“The Indonesian media is utterly controlled”, Harsono said.

Environmental destruction

The extraction of West Papuan natural resources has been an ecological disaster, with the emblematic case being that of US mining giant Freeport-McMoRan’s operations at the Grasberg mine since 1967, one of the world’s largest open air gold and copper mines. The mountain the mine is based on is now entirely destroyed. An estimated 300,000 tonnes of toxic tailings from the mine enter the Ajkwa river every day, poisoning drinking water and destroying fish stocks. 

Nabil Ahmed from INTERPT, an environmental justice research agency, provided visual evidence of how the Grasberg mine, the most valuable asset in West Papua from a revenue perspective, has poisoned the surrounding land and rivers. Satellite imagery between 1987 and 2014 shows how 138 square kilometres of low-land forests downstream from the mine have been destroyed. Ahmed also demonstrated that coastal waters at the mouth of the Ajkwa river are toxic.

A church leader spoke about the history of Freeport-McMoRan, which is now called PT Freeport Indonesia after the government took a a 51% majority stake in the company in 2017.

“In 1967, it was not yet clear if we were part of Indonesia or not [as the sham referendum did not take place until 1969], but already the contract was signed between Indonesia, the United States and Freeport for the Grasberg mine, without any say from West Papuans. 

“Who gave the authority to the Indonesian government to hand over this land to Freeport?”

A former worker at Freeport who was fired for being one of 8,300 workers to go on strike in 2017 gave evidence to the Tribunal. The Supreme Court found in 2021 that the strike was legal, but the workers’ have still not got their jobs back nor have they had access to social security. The worker said that around 200 of the fired workers have since died “from illness and depression”. 

“Freeport has violated our rights and are killing us slowly,” he said.

Collusion of global corporations

None of the state crimes committed against West Papua’s ecology and people can be understood out-with the context of corporate power, as it is the military occupation of West Papua which has facilitated resource extraction. This has included direct corporate participation in the militarisation of West Papua, with some of the largest players operating their own private security forces to protect their assets.

David Whyte, Director of the Queen Mary University of London’s department of climate crime and climate justice, explained that European, American and Australian investors were more often than not the ultimate beneficiary from industrial development in West Papua, operating at arms-length through “long-chains of subsidiaries” while still retaining a “high-level of oligarchic control”.

Palm-oil is a key export to come out of West Papua, with Indonesia making up 58% of all palm oil exports worldwide. For Unilever, one of the world’s largest food companies, half of all their supply of palm-oil comes from West Papua. 

Other companies invested in West Papua include London-based investment group Niche Jungle and BP through its Tangguh gas plant, which is set to expand by 50% in coming years, an expansion which is estimated to see the site providing 35% of all of Indonesia’s gas supply. 

To get a sense of the potential carbon emissions impact of the Tangguh plant, Whyte said if all of the potential gas resources is exploited from the site it will release 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is the same as the amount of carbon that has been reduced in the whole of Europe over the past 30 years. At the plant, just 1% of Papuans are employed, with BP paying retired Indonesian army and police to provide security.

“The presence of the corporations is the source of the conflict,” Whyte said. “This collusion between state forces and corporations is the mode of development in West Papua.”

Conclusion

While those giving testimony direct from West Papua were careful not to use the word ‘independence’, given that they were speaking in a public hearing and in the context of widespread imprisonment of independence advocates, almost all of them referred to their support for “self-determination” and rejection of Indonesia’s ‘Special Autonomy law’ for West Papua, passed in 2001. There are cracks in Indonesia’s efforts to prevent the West Papuan struggle for freedom reaching the wider world.

Indonesia has responded to the PPT hearing by saying it was a tool to influence “public perception” and that the tribunal offered opinions rather than legal judgements. Indonesia had the chance to offer their own defence at the PPT hearings but did not respond to a request for participation. 

Indonesia, of course, has powerful allies in defending the status quo in West Papua. First, there is the global corporate giants like BP and Unilever, which have an interest in ‘maintaining order’ in West Papua to maximise their profits. Second, western states, especially the United States, for whom Indonesia is a key Asian geopolitical ally in their attempts to constrain the rise of China. The US, UK and Australia also benefit when their respective corporations maintain their grip on West Papuan resources. This is where the economics and geopolitics of modern-day imperialism conjoin.

But while the West Papuan independence struggle may have the forces of imperialism and global capitalism ranged against it, they have in recent years shown themselves increasingly capable in resisting Indonesian control, including through armed resistance. In the case of nearby East Timor, which became independent from Indonesia in 1999, it was the intensity of the resistance in East Timor itself which eventually brought Indonesia to the negotiating table, agreeing to give up their colonial possession in a UN-brokered agreement.

A similar dynamic is not inconceivable in West Papua, and they should be able to count on anti-imperialists and ecologists the world over for support, since they are not just fighting for themselves, but also to protect a natural habitat that we all have a direct interest in its preservation. The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) has proposed that the country could become “Earth’s first greens state”, proposing a model of independence which combines three pillars: environmental and social protection, customary guardianship of the land, and democratic governance.

The Permanent People’s Tribunal is just one more link in the chain of building a global movement which uses all available means to support West Papua’s struggle for freedom. 

source: Brave New Europe

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