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The Road to Freedom Conference

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Conference report by Will Gethin

As part of the ongoing campaign for freedom, the International Lawyers for West Papua stage the Road to Freedom conference at Oxford University’s Examination Schools.

The conference brought together leading West Papuan independence leaders, international lawyers, parliamentarians and NGOs to present the strongest case to date that the people of West Papua have the right to self-determination under international law –  the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status free from external interference.

For some brief historical background – formerly a Dutch colony, West Papua was briefly transferred to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority in 1962 before being handed to Indonesia in 1963.  It officially became the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya following a UN-supervised referendum called the Act of Free choice in 1969 which most West Papuans consider fraudulent.  West Papua should not be confused with Papua New Guinea which takes up the eastern half of the island.

‘This is a historical day for West Papuan people,’ said Benny Wendy, an exiled West Papuan tribal chief and UK independence leader for West Papua, taking to the stand in a feathered headdress. ‘It’s the day Indonesia claimed West Papua was part of Indonesia 45 years ago but we never recognised their right,’ he continued. ‘ The people of West Papua will remember this day – for the last 45 years they have covered our voice and today we dig it from the grave and bring it to the world.’

Benny, who has been in exile in the UK since 2002, spearheads the Freedom for West Papua Campaign, the only national organisation in the UK working full time to stop the genocide in West Papua and to support the peaceful struggle of the Papuan people to regain their freedom.

The audience heard from Benny how in 1977 the Indonesian military bombed his childhood village killing many of his family and friends. ‘They are also destroying the forests and  mountains with their logging companies,’ he continued.  ‘They put me in prison for three years for peacefully campaigning for freedom.  I need justice to repay my country,’ he said.   ‘We need your support – this has been a cry for justice and peace for 45 years.’

Jennifer Robinson, a leading international human rights lawyer, whose high profile clients include Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, told the audience how she went to West Papua nine years ago to work for an NGO and a legal team defending Benny Wenda.  ‘I bore witness to the injustices of Benny’s trial and mistreatment,’ she said, ‘and to the suffering of the West Papuan people, including mass rape and murder.  And it changed my life.  It strengthened my resolve to become an international human rights lawyer.’

Jennifer said she was hopeful things could be resolved for West Papua.  ‘It’s nine years since Benny was in a cell,’ she said, ‘and now we are having this conference, so there is hope for the future.’

Victor Yeimo, International Spokesman for the KNPB, the leading student group in West Papua struggling for self-determination, talked about infringements of human rights in West Papua.  He travelled over from West Papua specially for the conference,  his presence at the event being a potent symbol.   In 2008, Victor took part in a peaceful rally held in Jayapura, West Papua as a way of showing support for the launch of International Parliamentarians for West Papua in the UK Parliament.  He was arrested and put in prison for 18 months, for holding a banner calling for a referendum.  Victor’s case is typical of numerous West Papuan activists who suffer human rights violations for peacefully campaigning for West Papua’s freedom.

‘We were treated like animals in prison,’ Victor said, ‘they didn’t care about our health.  And yet in our minds and hearts we were strong because we had hope that international powers would hear our cries.  Today you hear these cries and I hope our case can be taken to international law.’

Much of the focus of the conference centred around the 1969 Act of Free Choice which asked whether the population of West Papua favoured remaining with Indonesia or becoming independent. The vote was confirmed to show the population of West Papua unanimously chose union with Indonesia and the result was accepted by the United Nations, however West Papuans contend the vote.

British historian John Salford, who has carried out extensive research into West Papua’s recent history, said the historical evidence showed that the voting for the Act of Free Choice was rigged and that the UN had denied evidence of Papuan dissent.  He said that 95% of West Papuans, given the chance, would have voted in support of their country’s independence.  ‘The Act of Free Choice was an abuse of human rights,’ Salford concluded.

Charles Foster a barrister at Outer Temple Chambers in London said that there wasn’t a scholar in the world who thinks the Act of Free Choice was an act of free will for the West Papuan people.  ‘Self determination is a right,’ he said, ‘we can draw a line through the Act of Free Choice.’  He also condoned the Indonesian military’s suppression of expressions of self determination in West Papua.  ‘This is itself unlawful under international law,’ he said, ‘and Indonesia is obliged to facilitate a genuine expression of self determination.’

Jennifer Robinson stressed that immense political lobbying is now needed to make self determination happen for West Papua.  ‘Other independent nation states will need to take up the cause on behalf of West Papua,’ she said.

’We reaffirm that we have the right to self determination under international law,’ Benny Wenda concluded.  ‘And we call on all nations to demand that the people of West Papua should be allowed the act of self determination.’

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