Review: “The United Nations and the Indonesian Takeover of West Papua, 1962-1969: The Anatomy of Betrayal” – John Saltford

John Saltford’s “The United Nations and the Indonesian Takeover of West Papua, 1962-1969: The Anatomy of Betrayal” provides an outstanding analysis of the failure of the United Nations to implement the 1962 New York Agreement. Moreover, although the main interest of the Saltford is not the right of peoples to self-determination under international law, it is impossible to examine the New York Agreement without reference to the right of peoples to self-determination, and when necessary Saltford offers an equally outstanding analysis of this fundamental right in international law.

West Papua (also known as West Irian, Irian Jaya, and West New Guinea) refers to the largest and easternmost part of Indonesia (it has since been administratively renamed and divided by Indonesia) and the western half of the island of New Guinea. The dispute over West Papua began when Indonesia achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1950 under the leadership of President Sukarno. The Dutch refused to handover West Papua, instead choosing to prepare the Papuans for independence. At the time the U.S. and other Western powers, especially Australia, the then administrating power of Papua New Guinea, supported the Dutch, fearing the spread of communism to the island of New Guinea. But when Sukarno threatened to take West Papua by force, the Dutch were in no position to fight alone in a war (the U.S., Britain, and Australia weren’t interested in committing resources to support the Dutch) in a mountainous and inhospitable jungle in the Pacific. Thus, under U.S. and Indonesian pressure, the Dutch agreed to negotiate. This led to the 1962 New York Agreement, the main subject of this book.

According to the United Nations’ website, the New York Agreement “calls for the transfer of authority for the territory from the Netherlands to Indonesia. The document also includes a guarantee that the Papuan people would be allowed an ‘Act of Free Choice’ (referendum) to determine their political status. It provides for a UN Transitional Administration in West New Guinea (West Irian) for the transfer of authority from Netherlands to Indonesia and the conduct of the act of free choice.” The Agreement was widely viewed as a victory for Indonesia and a defeat for the Dutch. As a U.S. State Department report asserted, the “agreement was almost a total victory for Indonesia and a defeat for the Netherlands,” that the United States “Bureau of European Affairs was sympathetic to the Dutch view that annexation by Indonesia would simply trade white for brown colonialism,” and that “The underlying reason that the Kennedy administration pressed the Netherlands to accept this agreement was that it believed that Cold War considerations of preventing Indonesia from going Communist overrode the Dutch case.”

Saltford’s analysis supports the above U.S. State Department’s summary of the Agreement. More importantly, however, Saltford examines the failure to implement the Agreement. “Specifically, under the Agreement,” Saltford writes, “the Netherlands, Indonesia and the UN had an obligation to protect the political rights and freedoms of the Papuans, and to ensure that self-determination took place freely in accordance with international practice. On both of these points, the three parties failed, and they did so deliberately because genuine Papuan self-determination was never considered a serious option by any of them once the Agreement had been signed” (p. 180). Saltford cites numerous incidents and violations of the Agreement both under UN and later Indonesian administration.

Throughout the book Saltford details numerous violations of the terms of the Agreement.

Article XXII states: “The UNTEA [temporary UN administration of West Papua] and Indonesia will guarantee fully the rights, including the rights of free speech, freedom of movement and of assembly, of the inhabitants of the area. These rights will include the existing rights of the inhabitants of the territory at the time of the transfer of administration to the UNTEA.” Moreover, UNTEA had the authority to introduce new laws or adapt existing ones “To the extent that they are consistent with the letter and spirit of the present Agreement.” Yet despite being obligated to protect the rights and freedoms of the Papuans, UNTEA ordered its police commanders to take “vigorous action” against anyone committing offenses under Dutch colonial law, “all of which made it a serious offense during the UNTEA period to speak out publicly against Indonesia or Indonesians in general” (p. 49). According to Saltford, whom I am inclined to agree with, “it is hard to see how UNTEA’s adaptation of Articles 154, 156 and 207 from the existing Dutch legal code was in any way consistent with the letter and spirit of the Agreement’s commitment to free speech in the territory as laid down in its Article XXII. Nor was it consistent with U Thant’s guidance to Abdoh that he should ensure Article XXII of the Agreement be ‘scrupulously observed’” (pp. 49-50).

After the UNTEA administration ended and the territory was transferred to Indonesian control, Sukarno banned all existing Papuan political parties, prohibited all political activity not sanctioned by the Indonesian authorities, and closed West Papua to the outside world, all violations of the Agreement. The failure of UN Secretary-General U Thant to enforce the terms of the Agreement were noted in internal Australian and British reports. An Australian memorandum reported “the failure of the Secretary-General to give effect to his intention to send Article XVI experts to the Territory…To our knowledge, none of the Article XVI experts has visited West Irian and other experts have been obliged, in order to ensure freedom of movement, formally to disassociate their visits from the purposes of Article XVI” (p. 75). This didn’t stop U Thant from reporting to the UN General Assembly, as he was required to do by the Agreement, on November 6, 1969, that although Article XVI of the Agreement concerning the presence of UN experts in the territory had not been implemented as required, the Papuan people “in accordance with Indonesian practice” nonetheless “have expressed their wish to remain with Indonesia” (p. 172).

Furthermore, when hundreds, if not thousands, of Papuans demonstrated in front of the residence of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for West Irian (UNRWI), the Bolivian diplomat Ortiz-Sanz, the UNRWI turned a blind eye to the fact that many of the participants were shot at by Indonesian troops and later imprisoned and tortured. The UN also turned a blind eye to the multiple armed rebellions against Indonesian rule in West Papua and the Indonesian military’s brutal reprisals, including bombing whole regions that displaced thousands of Papuans.

In an even more egregious violation of the Agreement, the UNRWI even recommended to the Indonesians that dissident Papuans should be detained in Java, thousands of miles away, lest they interfere with the Act of Free Choice! The UNRWI advised the Indonesians that “It was better to move them [dissident Papuans] out of the territory, if their retention was necessary, before the Act of Free Choice” (p. 123). According to Saltford, “By suggesting the removal of such prisoners from West Irian, he [Ortiz-Sanz] was not only condoning this breach of the Agreement, but was also advocating a policy of detaining prisoners thousands of miles away from their family and friends. Ironically it was a method previously used against Indonesian nationalists by the Dutch” (p. 123).

Article XVIII(a) states: “Consultations (Musjawarah) with the representative councils on procedures and appropriate methods to be followed for ascertaining the freely expressed will of the population.” Additionally, Article XVIII(d) of the Agreement states: “The eligibility of all adults, male and female, not foreign nationals in the act of self-determination to be carried out in accordance with international practice, who are resident at the time of the signing of the present Agreement and at the time of the act of self-determination, including those residents who departed after 1945 and who return to the territory to resume residence after the termination of Netherlands administration.”

With UN acquiescence there was to be virtually no popular participation in the Act of Free Choice. Instead of a “one-man, one-vote” plebiscite or referendum, the internationally recognized means for determining the “freely expressed will of the population,” Indonesia instead relied solely on “consultative assemblies”. The members of these assemblies would be selected from from “Existing, officially approved political, social and cultural organizations,” Saltford writes (p. 123). The UNRWI himself was aware that “those few people — possibly existing — not in favour of retaining ties with the Republic of Indonesia, are…not organized in legally existing political groups or parties in West Irian” (pp. 123-124). Despite being a blatant violation of the Agreement, the UN accepted the Indonesian proposal, with minimal opposition. Although the UNRWI initially insisted on some level of popular participation, he described the Indonesian proposal as a “slight departure” from the Agreement that the Act of Free choice should be conducted “in accordance with international practice” (pp. 110-111). The UNRWI continued on to urge the Indonesians to meet him half-way “by agreeing that my preliminary suggestion represents the minimum requirement to satisfy world public opinion” (p. 111). Again, I am inclined to agree with Saltford’s assessment of this exchange between the Indonesians and the UNRWI that it was inappropriate for a UN official “to endorse a method which not only broke the terms of the Agreement, but by his own admission only represented the ‘minimum requirement’ to satisfy international opinion” (p. 111).   

According to Saltford, “Indonesia’s on-going opposition to popular participation in the Act is understandable” due to the widespread opposition to Indonesian rule (p. 133). As one British Embassy report noted:

“the majority of West Irianese…are very far from wishing to become integrated with the Republic of Indonesia. Of all the people he [a journalist] spoke to, and he met between 300 and 400, none was in favour of such a solution. The impression he has is that the Papuans loathe the Indonesians, perhaps in the same degree and as a direct consequence of the way in which Indonesians have despised and belittled the Papuans” (p. 1333).

The last sentence of that quote refers to the opinion Indonesian military and government officials held of the Papuans. As one British diplomat described a conversation he had with Indonesian General Sarwo Edhie, the General commented that the Papuans “badly needed civilizing, half of them were completely naked (which seemed to shock him) and they were very lazy. He had a feeling that the Dutch had spoiled them…[but] properly treated by an honourable administration, they should settle down happily” (p. 132). Saltford is quite right that this was “an assessment that could have just as easily been made by a nineteenth-century Dutch colonial officer about the Javanese, and it goes some way to explaining why the Indonesians were so resented” (p. 132).

The 1,024 Indonesian-selected members of the Consultative Assemblies were forcibly detained and threatened by the Indonesian military to ensure an Indonesian victory in the Act of Free Choice. Inevitably the “consultative assemblies” voted unanimously to remain within Indonesia, leading one Australian newspaper to report that “even Hitler was satisfied with less than one hundred per cent in plebiscites” (p. 161).

The whole Act of Free choice was widely condemned throughout the world. According to Benedict Anderson, “Jakarta’s diplomatic community insists and members of the Indonesian government frankly admit in private that the entire process is a meaningless formality” (pp. 158-159). Stuart Harris, who witnessed one of the “consultative assembly” votes in Biak, reported that the “United Nations team is doing its best but their brief is a sham and they know it. Unhappily most of the people of West Irian do not understand this…They are encouraged by the useless presence of the United Nations observers and foreign journalists…to believe that their people have a choice” (p. 159). A Time magazine article commented how “Indonesia, one a bastion of a noisy self-righteous anti-colonialism, last week formally took over a remote, primitive piece of real estate that can hardly be considered anything but a colony” (p. 167).

I agree with Saltford’s assessment of the UN’s shameful role in the implementation of the Agreement: “it is clear that the Secretariat’s priority throughout was to ensure that the territory became a recognized part of Indonesia with the minimum controversy and disruption. This was a role that has been assigned to the UN by Washington in 1962 and U Thant saw no reason to deviate from it. This was ‘big power’ Cold War politics in which the rights of the Papuans counted for nothing” (p. 180). In making this assessment Saltford compares how independence was achieved in neighbouring Papua New Guinea:

“In marked contrast to its attitude towards West Irian, the UNGA resolutions concerning self-determination for TPNG were impressive. In 1966 and 1967, the UNGA adopted resolutions accusing Australia of condoning discriminatory practices in TPNG and called for the holding of elections fixing an early date for independence. In December 1968, the UNGA passed another resolution which included calls for Australia to: (a) fix an early date for self-determination and independence in accordance with the freely expressed wishes of the people of the territories; (b) hold free elections under United Nations supervision on the basis of universal suffrage in order to transfer effective power to the representatives of the people of the territories” (p. 174).

Moreover, in 1999 the UN committed 1,000 officials to organize and supervise the East Timorese referendum, including “270 police, 50 military liaison officers and hundreds of electoral officials and administrators” (p. 110). In West Papua, a territory many times the size of East Timor, the UNRWI’s had a staff of 15 officials to “advise, assist and participate” in the Act of Free Choice. (p. 110).

Saltford’s analysis of the UN’s failure to implement the Agreement and its virtual sellout of the rights of the Papuan peoples in favour of Cold War politics is well-researched and well-written. However, before I conclude this review, I want to bring attention to some of Saltford’s lesser points that are not necessarily significant to West Papua but are significant in other areas of the world.

On pages 8-9 Saltford examines briefly but significantly the lack of support for the people of West Papua by the USSR and the newly liberated states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

He first examines the application of the principle uti possidetis juris and how that influenced international perceptions of West Papua. Put simply, the principle uti possidetis juris maintains that the boundaries of post-colonial states should match the boundaries of the colonial entities that they replaced (i.e., post-colonial states shall inherit the boundaries established by European colonialists). Uti possidetis juris was to intended limit fratricidal conflicts between post-colonial states by making post-colonial boundaries inviolable. But according to one scholar cited by Saltford, this was to prove to be a flawed argument:

“Most states were multinational or polyethnic, and many subordinate ethno-nationalist groups perceived the doctrine of utis possidetis juris to be an ideology that justified the domination of weak peoples by groups that had managed to seize state power. Consequently, secessionist wars and anti-secessionist repression became pervasive features of the post-colonial world order. The UN state system could not live in peace with the nationalism that it had itself encouraged. It would only recognize states, while it denied to many peoples the right to their own states” (p. 8).

This flaw in the principle of uti possidetis juris is one that I feel is too often overlooked by legal scholars. Krüger and Makili-Aliyev, for example, have argued that uti possidetis juris, in making colonial borders supposedly inviolable in the post-colonial world, is indispensable for the maintenance of world stability, while ignoring the pervasive instability that has occurred because of it.

Moreover, as if anticipating the arguments of Krüger, Makili-Aliyev and others that there is no right to secession in international law and that the right to self-determination is inapplicable in the post-colonial world, Saltford quotes one scholar, Rein Mullerson, whose assessment is relevant to West Papua and many other conflicts:

“when a minority is denied its rights and its oppressed and discriminated against, it is thereby rejected by the majority. The majority rejects and alienates the minority leaving it outside the society. Thereby the minority becomes not simply ethnically or religiously distinct (this distinctiveness always belongs to it), but also socially, economically and politically different from the majority. We may say that the minority, due to the policy of the majority which does not permit the minority to fully develop its identity, acquires characteristics similar to those of colonial peoples. It can survive as a distinct group only independently of the majority. Therefore, the principle of self-determination of peoples becomes directly relevant to such minorities” (p. 179).

This assessment accurately describes the almost colonial conditions faced by minorities living in multiethnic states dominated by a single ethnic or religious group and the failure of international law to address the inherent instability caused by a rigid interpretation of uti possidetis juris. It would behoove Krüger, Makili-Aliyev, Isachenko, and others to consider Mullerson’s assessment that even in a post-colonial world, “When minorities are discriminated against or their identity is threatened by majority policy…This means that the minority can realize its right to self-determination not in the society as a whole, together with the rest of the population, but only separately.”

As well as uti possidetis juris, the USSR and newly liberated Africa, Asian, and Latin American countries were also influenced by the Katanga crisis in their perceptions of West Papua. Belgium and other Western powers supported the pro-West Katanga ruler Moise Tshombe in his secession from the Congo to weaken the democratic government of Patrice Lumumba and protect their economic interests in this resource rich Congolese province. By exploiting the Katanga crisis, Saltford writes, Indonesia was able to convince the USSR and many of the newly liberated countries that the West Papua dispute was a Dutch-encouraged effort to weaken newly liberated Indonesia under President Sukarno (a perception not without some truth).

Saltford’s book is a powerful indictment of the UN and international law with respect to self-determination and minority rights. This is a must read for international legal scholars.

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