Westminster Hall: West Papua: Human Rights

Mark responded on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate called by Robert Courts MP regarding human rights in West Papua. Mark's response to the debate is pasted below and can be viewed in the above clip. You can find the debate on Hansard in its entirety here.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing this ​important debate. I am also grateful for the insights and contributions of the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and for the Front-Bench contributions. I will endeavour to answer all the questions, and I will respond in writing to those that I do not answer now.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the UK and Indonesia. I am very pleased to say that the relationship is flourishing. Indonesia is an important democratic partner in the G20 and, for the next two years, on the UN Security Council. In that context, we follow the situation in Papua very seriously. We welcome President Joko Widodo’s commitment to a peaceful and prosperous Papua, but we recognise that the historical challenges are significant. Many of those challenges stem from the disputes over resources and governance, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, and from unresolved human rights grievances.

Although the UK Government wholeheartedly respect the territorial integrity of Indonesia, with the province of Papua and West Papua as integral parts, it is important, within that framework, that the authorities address the needs and aspirations of the Papuan people.

We are concerned by the sporadic outbreaks of violence in Papua, and by reports of alleged human rights violations by the security forces. We will continue to press the Indonesian authorities to strengthen their human rights protections and to address the legitimate concerns of the people, including by ensuring that they benefit from sustainable and equitable development, and of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) in relation to the building of a civic society that allows free political parties.

There are serious and long-standing concerns about the influence and actions of the Indonesian security forces in Papua. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and I believe that it is regrettable that, despite improvements since the restoration of democracy in Indonesia in 1998, there remains persistent reporting of worrying human rights violations in Papua. Meanwhile, there has been no real accountability for the serious abuses of the past.

When I met the Indonesian ambassador to London in January, I raised those issues with him, not least because I had recently met with the all-party group, and in the light of the contemporary violence in Nduga, where armed groups had attacked construction workers, resulting in the deaths of 19 people. We urged the Indonesian authorities then to ensure that any security response is proportionate. As has been rightly and universally recognised, however, under successive democratically elected Governments there has been a noticeable improvement in the overall human rights situation across Indonesia and an end to the debilitating conflicts in East Timor, Aceh, Ambon and elsewhere.

During their recent phone call, the UK Prime Minister praised the President of Indonesia for the peaceful conduct of the presidential and legislative elections in April, which represented the single largest one-day democratic event anywhere in the world, with an 80% voter turnout and more than 800,000 polling stations operating across the archipelago. Although there were some localised delays to polling, including in Papua, there has been no evidence to suggest that it was anything other than a well-run and credible election. Nevertheless, ​we will continue to raise our concerns about issues such as the freedom of expression and assembly and the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

In reference to media freedom in Papua, which was raised by several hon. Members, UK officials regularly raise the importance of media access to Papua with the Indonesian Government, and they will continue to do so. Our embassy in Jakarta is active in promoting press freedom across the entirety of Indonesia, where there is already a vibrant media environment. To mark World Press Freedom Day last week, the embassy arranged a full programme of activities to celebrate the work of Indonesia’s journalists, media organisations and regulators in that regard.

Although President Jokowi has said that foreign journalists should be allowed to access Papua without pre-conditions, unfortunately we understand that Indonesian officials continue to place substantial practical obstacles in the way of that taking place. Transparency and media access are important to give us a fuller picture of the situation. We also encourage all Indonesian journalists to write openly and frankly about Papua to ensure that local perspectives are properly heard and are part of the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witney made a point about the panel to defend media freedoms, which has not yet had its first meeting, as I understand. It will be for its members to determine its work and to plan its initial areas of focus. It would not be appropriate for the UK Government to seek to dictate them, because in many ways that would undermine the important sense of its independence.

We regularly press for the release of political prisoners across Papua. Under President Jokowi, the number has fallen from 37 in 2014 to fewer than 10 today. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have acknowledged that positive trend, but we continue to make the case that 10 political prisoners remains 10 too many. Moreover, we are concerned that three people were charged with treason in January after apparently taking part in a peaceful prayer event. We call, here and now, for all political prisoners to be released immediately, and for the Indonesian authorities to ensure that all detainees are given the right to a fair trial.

We will continue to request updates on the historical human rights cases in Papua that President Jokowi has committed to resolve. We will keep the pressure up in the aftermath of the elections. Initial investigations have been conducted by the National Commission on Human Rights, but they need to be properly dealt with by the Attorney General’s office.

On phosphorus, I am happy to have further conversations with the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland and for Leeds North West about the issue, but our investigations have not substantiated the media claims that it was used in violation of the chemical weapons convention—as was rightly pointed out, it is prohibited in all cases against civilians. Therefore, we do not believe that there is a case for referral to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, but I am more than happy to look at any additional written or other evidence that the hon. Gentleman has. Clearly, we would then be happy to take the matter up.

As has been pointed out, President Jokowi has visited Papua 10 times during his first term, which is far more than any previous Indonesian President. He has made a number of important democratic commitments, including ​to establish a constructive political dialogue with Papuan groups. That process represents a credible opportunity to address long-held grievances, and in our discussions with the Indonesian Government we will urge them to deliver on those commitments. I very much hope that the recent sad but peaceful passing of Pastor Neles Tebay, the Papuan priest who has been at the forefront of attempts to create a peaceful dialogue on the future of Papua, might inspire progress to honour his legacy, led by the team that the President has appointed to foster a dialogue.

I agree that the Act of Free Choice was an utterly flawed process, but I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, and to the Chamber, that there is no desire in the international community for reopening the question. The UK, along with other members of the UN, supports Indonesia’s territorial integrity.

We will continue to support efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and her officials to arrange the visit to Papua, at the invitation of the Indonesian Government. Officials in our embassy in Jakarta have discussed the proposed visit with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and have encouraged Indonesia to agree dates as soon as possible. I also undertake to raise the proposed visit with my Indonesian counterparts. I hope to make a substantially long visit to Indonesia later in the year.

Facilitating a visit to Papua would help the Indonesian Government to demonstrate their commitment to the rights and freedoms of those residing there. It would also help to underline the seriousness with which they take their candidacy for a seat on the Human Rights Council. Being a member of the UN Security Council also provides us with an opportunity to speak fairly openly in New York on the issue.

It is clear that economic factors are a major source of grievance among the Papuan people, and a source of strain in their relationship with the central Government and local authorities. That is why we will continue to support Indonesia’s regional governments to develop a green economy in which people can make a living without over-exploiting their natural resources, and in which there is greater regulatory oversight of the timber industry, which has been fundamentally linked to the social conflict.

I end by saying that the Government will continue to take a close interest in human rights in Papua. I am pleased that a number of MPs are passionate about ​that. I enjoy their passion and it provides us with the opportunity to make a serious case to our Indonesian counterparts, which we will do. Above all, that expression of interest is in the interests of all the people of Papua and the rest of Indonesia.