Home / Asia and Pacific / A Case for Considering West Papua a ‘Non-Self-Governing Territory’

A Case for Considering West Papua a ‘Non-Self-Governing Territory’

2 September, 2021

By Jessica Honan – Research Assistant

West Papua is not recognised by the UN to be a Non-Self-Governing Territory (NSGT). A NSGT is UN-determined ‘territory whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government’ under Chapter XI of the United Nations Charter. The territory of West Papua, comprising the provinces of Papua and West Papua, is now formally a part of Indonesia. However, there have been ongoing violent and passive protests and movements calling for independence. The territory is ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse to Indonesia, which coupled with the human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Indonesian government, substantiates these calls for independence.

West Papua was first colonised by the Dutch in 1898, and upon introduction of the concept of NSGT by the UN, West Papua was added to the list of formally recognised NSGTs. This status meant the Netherlands was required to ‘transmit’ (provide information on information on the economic, social and educational conditions) to the UN Secretary General regarding West Papua, but there was no duty to offer the territory independence. After the Second World War the UN began an agenda of decolonisation, but during the period of Dutch colonisation of West Papua, no legally binding obligations existed on the Netherlands to decolonise.

In 1962, Indonesia annexed West Papua. The UN continued to recognise West Papua as a NSGT, but in the early 1960s, international instruments were still largely aspirational and offered little to no legally-binding obligation to decolonise. Subsequently, Indonesia was not under any obligation to afford West Papua independence. Following Indonesia’s annexation, from 1962 to 1969, West Papua was a UN trusteeship approved by the UN in Resolution 1752 (XVII). This involved the formal transfer of power from the Netherlands to Indonesia under UN Temporary Executive Authority. As a result of this UN-sanctioned transfer, West Papua was no longer considered to be a NSGT, but instead, a region of Indonesia. It was removed from the list of NSGTs. As part of its obligations per the formal transfer, Indonesia held a referendum in 1969 – the Act of Free Choice – to determine whether West Papua would be integrated into its territory. The conclusion of this referendum resulted in West Papua being integrated into Indonesia. Since then, it has stayed off the UN list of NSGTs.

Although, as a matter of fact, West Papua is not recognised as a NSGT by the UN, there is a strong case for it to be considered as one. Advocates of West Papuan independence argue that West Papua should be considered to have never ceased being a NGST in 1963, as the UN trusteeship was illegitimate. Resolution 1752 (XVII), which created the trusteeship upon which Indonesia could then integrate West Papua, did not approve the conditions of the trusteeship (which is a requirement under article 85 of the UN Charter). Proponents therefore point to this as meaning West Papua was not legitimately integrated into Indonesia, and should therefore still be considered a NSGT.

Moreover, Indonesia should only have integrated West Papua if its people had, through ‘informed and democratic processes, impartially conducted and based on universal adult suffrage’, indicated a desire to integrate, in accordance with General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. However, the Act of Free Choice was neither universal nor democratic. The Indonesian military chose only a subset of society to vote, and there are strong allegations that this subset was blackmailed into voting in favour of integration to Indonesia. Rather than providing West Papuans with the opportunity to make an informed and democratic decision, Indonesia did not adhere to Resolution 1514 (XV) requirements when carrying out the election. Again, this indicates that the integration of West Papua into Indonesia was illegitimate.

Finally, as a matter of substance if not form, West Papua can be considered to meet the definition of a NSGT. West Papua has clearly not obtained self-government, as it is still being ruled by Indonesia. Though Indonesia’s ‘Special Autonomy Law’ in 2001 was aimed at providing West Papuans with a greater measure of self-government and representation, a large majority of West Papuans do not believe it granted them any substantive autonomy, but instead is a further tool for securing West Papuans’ disenfranchisement and oppression by the Indonesian government.

Proponents of West Papuan independence are in favour of categorising West Papua as a NSGT because it creates obligations on Indonesia, who would be the ‘Administering State’. Administering States are obliged to recognise that ‘the interests of the inhabitants of these Territories are paramount’ and to ‘take effective measures to safeguard and guarantee the inalienable rights of the peoples of the NSGT’. These requirements would mean Indonesia could no longer perpetrate most of the oppressive measures it has in place, and would have to be more open to the independence dialogue. Finally, and most substantively, Administering Powers’ function is to assist the territory in developing self-governance for the ultimate goal of decolonisation. This means Indonesia would be obliged to develop West Papua’s political systems in preparation of independence.

Nevertheless, despite a strong case for recognising West Papua as a NSGT, the UN’s list continues to exclude West Papua. Political factors mean it is also unlikely the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, the C-24 (a group of UN member-States responsible for determining which territories are on the list of NSGTs) will add West Papua. First, adding West Papua might give the appearance that C-24 is admitting the failure of the UN’s actions in allowing Indonesia to integrate West Papua. More significantly, Indonesia is a current C-24 member, and would clearly oppose any movement that West Papua is a NSGT. Hence, given that this avenue for calling Indonesia to decolonise West Papua is unlikely to succeed, West Papuans are resorting to other tactics, including mass publication of atrocities and civil disobedience, to gain independence.

Image: A 2012 Free West Papua protest in Australia (Source: Nichollas Harrison via CC BY-SA 3.0)

About Jessica Honan

Jessica Honan is a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Arts student at the Australian National University, majoring in Human Rights and French. Jess has interned with the Australian Institute of International Affairs, the Global Pro Bono Bar and is currently working on a project to legally enforce nuclear disarmament with the Micronesian Legal Clinic. Jess was awarded the National Council of Women Queensland Young Women Thinking Globally bursary in 2019. She is the current president of the International Relations Society at ANU and co-leads the ANU Law Reform and Social Justice Human Rights portfolio. She completed a tour to Cambodia to study transnational justice, and toured Myanmar under the Australian Government New Colombo Plan to research ethnic conflict. She speaks four languages, and her professional interests include the Law of Armed Conflict, transition justice and Human Rights law.