16 Apr 2019

West Papuan legal challenge to Act of Free Choice

9:20 am on 16 April 2019

A move by West Papuans to challenge 1969's controversial Act of Free Choice referendum has found its way to Indonesia's Constitutional Court.

Coalition of Lawyers for Truth and Justice of West Papuan People hold a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Coalition of Lawyers for Truth and Justice of West Papuan People hold a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Supplied

The Coalition of Lawyers for Truth and Justice of West Papuan People has applied for a judicial review of the process by which the former Dutch New Guinea was integrated into Indonesia.

It submitted its application to the Constitutional Court in Jakarta on behalf of Papuan customary representatives. They claim West Papuans' rights weren't respected during 1969's controversial Act of Free Choice referendum.

The plaintiffs argue their legal challenge is in line with the spirit of Indonesia's Law of Special Autonomy for Papua Province, granted in 2001. In particular, Article 46 of the Law stipulates for "clarification of the history of Papua" as part of a general empowerment of West Papuans and their rights as citizens.

A member of the team which drafted the Law, Agus Sumule, said assertions that the referendum reflected the wishes of the people must be tested.

"The lawyers found it's totally different, that it's against human rights, which is definitely against the Fourth Amendment of the Indonesian constitution, and therefore it has to be reviewed. It has to be annulled, it has to be cancelled," he said.

Indonesians go to the polls for elections this Wednesday to vote for the country's president and legislative assembly on the same day for the first time.

While many West Papuans would be asserting their right to vote, others plan to boycott the polls in protest as part of their long-running independence struggle.

At the heart of the struggle is a core grievance related to events which followed 1962's New York Agreement between the Netherlands and Indonesia. The agreement was for an act of self-determination to be carried out in Papua in accordance with international practice.

The Act of Free Choice took place over a number of weeks and involved the vote of 1022 West Papuans, or around 0.2 percent of the population at the time, selected by Indonesian officials and military.

The referendum, which is widely regarded to have been stage managed and resulted in an unanimous vote for integration into Indonesia, was noted by the UN General Assembly.

Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo campaigning in Jayapura.

The government of Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, seen here during an election campaign in Papua, says Indonesian sovereignty in Papua is final. Photo: AFP

Indonesia's government says Indonesian sovereignty in Papua is final, and has consistently rejected claims that the Act of Free Choice, or Perpera, didn't meet international standards of self determination.

"Everything was done properly, and conducted under the supervisions," Indonesia's ambassador to New Zealand Tantowi Yahya told RNZ Pacific in 2017.

"During the General Assembly of the United Nations, none of the members of the UN said no to the process that was happening in the Pepera."

However, the democratic structures of Indonesia provide for accountability on constitutional obligations to basic rights. Dr Sumule said it was clear that when it came to the Act of Free Choice the wishes of the people were not respected.

"There was intimidation during that process. People were killed. So it's very much against the spirit of the New York Agreement, which, as we know, is to provide the open and peaceful and lawful opportunity for the people in Papua to decide," he said.

The application for a judicial review, Dr Sumule explained, was a peaceful and lawful way of referring the issue to a most respected institution of the republic, where those with the best understanding of constitutional issues can discuss and debate it.

"We believe this should be seen as a way forward where there's a very important issue which has been really the reason for (the) antagonistic relationship between Jakarta and Papua.

"I believe that there are people in Indonesia who would also like to see this very important issue to be properly discussed."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs