Home Special News West Papuan Separatists Hand Petition to U.N. Human Rights Chief

West Papuan Separatists Hand Petition to U.N. Human Rights Chief


The West Papuan separatist movement caused a minor disturbance after a leader of West Papuan separatists’ international organization (ULMWP), Benny Wenda, was smuggled into United Nations Human Rights Council conference in Geneva, Friday (25/1). The council was in an awkward position as they were upset for the breach of diplomatic ethics, but the case was resolved immediately.

Benny Wenda illegally entered the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) follow-up meeting by hijacking the delegation of Vanuatu through Mr. Don Ken, Minister of Justice and Community Services of Vanuatu, who led the delegation.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a body of United Nations, which is subject to the formal legal procedures of the international institution. Regarding this case, OHCHR stands firm to protect its human rights agenda from the influence of particular parties with certain political interests.

Chronology of The Meeting

Benny Wenda handed over a “petition” to the high commissioners of human rights council, using the mechanism of courtesy call to request a meeting, by the rights of Vanuatu as a State Under Review. The call for meeting was responded by Michelle Bachelet, former Chilean president who currently serves as a high commissioner.

During the meeting, OHCHR commissioners admittedly did not notice the presence of an unauthorized person, who was later identified as Benny Wenda. When the discussion was shifting from Vanuatu’s periodic review towards the topic of West Papua, Benny handed over the envelope of what was assumed to be the petition, which was received by the staff of the commissioners.

The OHCHR has expressed their sincerest apology for the disturbance, admitting that it was a considerable mistake from their side. The commission also highlighted the fact that they felt ‘deceived’ by the Vanuatu delegation, and refused to follow up the petition, ruling it as illegitimate. OHCHR would continue to strictly discuss about Vanuatu’s Universal Periodic Review on their human rights issues as it was planned in the agenda.   

A Red Alert for Vanuatu

The breach of diplomatic ethics by Vanuatu delegation is not only a matter of procedural violation, but more importantly, an abuse of political mandate which was given by the international society, and more significantly by the people of Vanuatu itself.

First and foremost, Vanuatu has failed to respect United Nations as an international institution. The strict ruling in every assembly of the UN was not made to be taken lightly; strict, formal rules are made so that every discussion can be very focused, and complex problems such as improving human rights in Vanuatu can be addressed in great detail. A country that disrespects the time and effort dedicated by the UN to help solving human rights problems is not only upsetting, but also giving a bad example.

Data on the 2009 Universal Periodic Review on human rights in Vanuatu showed that the rights of women, conditions in prisons, government corruption and access to education needed some improvement in the country. In the 2019 UPR, the Human Rights Council working group recommended Vanuatu to adopt more resolutions on The Rights of The Child and Ending Discrimination Against Women. By allowing an unauthorized party to hijack the delegation, Minister Don Ken and other representatives of Vanuatu have wasted precious time and opportunity to create a better environment for the people in Vanuatu.

Secondly, this case of diplomatic ethics breach can potentially lower the trust from international society, not only towards Vanuatu, but also other Pacific nations, the Human Rights Council, or even the United Nations as an institution. The government of Vanuatu needs to take responsibility of this considerably damaging consequence, and they owe some explanations (with apologies) to Indonesian government along with other 191 member countries of the UN.

A Brief Background of ULMWP

Benny Wenda and ULMWP are affiliated with OPM, the military wing organization of West Papua separatist movement. In December 2018, the OPM claimed responsibility for killing at least 16 construction workers in Nduga, in the event known as “Nduga Massacre”. In their press release on Facebook, ULMWP admitted that the killings were done to manifest the anger of Egianus Kogoya, a commander of OPM, on December 1st 2018. Egianus was angry towards one of the worker, named Jonny Arung, who took photos of West Papuan separatist movement’s anniversary ceremony.

Muhammad Aidi, provincial military spokesman of West Papua, told the press that ULMWP and Free West Papua movement manipulated the press and the public by accusing Indonesian authority of committing atrocities, when the reality is that OPM has done all the killings. He also pointed how both ULMWP and OPM have no evidence that Indonesian authority has broken any law in West Papua: “He cannot show the evidence of what he has accused (Indonesia and the military) of,” Aidi said on Sunday (27/01). “It is the Free Papua Movement that killed the innocent civilians.”, he said.

With the fact that Indonesian forces are still looking for 50 OPM members who are guilty for Nduga Massacre, West Papuan separatists are making speculative accusations regarding refugee issues, often portraying it as a ‘crisis’.

The Same Story from 2017

This is not the first time Benny Wenda and ULMWP released such story and narratives to the press and public for his organization’s interest. In 2017, Benny used the exact same photo to support his story, about the same petition, demanding the same referendum.

(Photo: Benny Wenda and his petition in 2017)

This year, Benny uses the same photo of himself and the book. In his highly artificial publicity with the petition, the story of the book and Wenda’s call for the United Nations is raising many questions.

(Photo: The same picture used by Benny Wenda in 2019)

Surprisingly, this year’s petition did not get much support from other big names among the West Papua separatist movement. Other than Wenda, the separatist elders did not seem to share the excitement for the petition, since no update was seen on any of the leaders’ social media pages. The most displeased person regarding this petition might be Leonie Tanggahma, a West Papuan separatist who used to be a board member in ULMWP, Benny Wenda’s organization.

When Leonie was still in ULMWP, the organization claimed the submission of a petition for West Papuan referendum in United Nations General Assembly for the first time, but Leonie rejected the idea. Leonie explained that the petition was not a part of UN mechanism that regulates activities inside the Decolonization Committee (C-24). The UN mechanism varies from one UN agency to another, this is also the case for the UN Decolonisation Committee.

The Mechanism for Petitions and Referendum

In the context of C-24, there is indeed a well-established petition mechanism. However, the “applicant” in this mechanism should be an individual or a civil society organization that has been involved in C-24 annual sessions concerning Non-Self-Governing Territories whose existence is stipulated in the Declaration of Granted Independence, such as American Samoa, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Malvinas (Falkland Islands), French Polynesia, Gibraltar, Guam, Montserrat, Kanaly (New Caledonia), Pitcairn, St. Helena, Tokelau, Turkey, Caicos Islands, United States Virgin Islands, and Western Sahara.

The United Nations Decolonization committee denied having received any petition in 2017. The committee’s leader, Rafael Ramirez, stated that he was being used for propaganda, while he recognized Indonesian sovereignty on West Papua and that he never received such petition.

At the end of 2017, Tanggahma resigned from ULMWP organization as a board member. This sparked a debate and division among supporters of Free West Papua. Months later in September 2018, Leoni wrote on her Facebook timeline about ULMWP petition, captured by berita-papua .com:

“…Unfortunately, there is possibility that those who said have given this petition to the C-24 thought that by only giving the petition to C-24 then West Papua can be included in the Committee’s agenda. However, this will not happen. They can’t accept this fact. Most Papuans who signed for this petition were made to believe that C-24 will accept West Papua into the list.”

“…After it left West Papua, the petition landed in the hands of the people who took picture with it, who went to the media with it, who got publicity because of it, who gained popularity because of it. Once the West Papua People’s Petition left the homeland, it was basically got abused at the expense of thousands people who signed it.”

Currently, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has been focusing on developing Papua and its human resources for the last 5 years, paying no less than 9 visits to the province. Since he came to power in 2014, Indonesia has made far-from-perfect, yet notable progress in Papua by freeing prisoners and addressing human rights concerns, while stepping up investment with projects like the 4,330 kilometres-long Trans Papua highway. Nonetheless, the claims and accusations from Benny Wenda and affiliated separatist organizations remain the same.

What is Next?

A strong, diplomatic gesture will be expected from Indonesia and the UN to respond to what was done by Vanuatu and Benny Wenda at the OHCHR. The Human Rights Council is a place for thoughtful policy advisory, and any attempt to disrupt it by running a publicity stunt must not be left unpunished.

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