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Self-Determination and the Limits of Justice: West Papua and East Timor

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Published in Future Justice in 2010

by Jennifer Robinson

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Introduction

On 4 June 2008 , Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced his vision for the establishment of an Asia-Pacific Community. Subsequently, the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has undertaken an inquiry into international and regional human rights mechanisms and possible models for the Asia–Pacific region. Simultaneously there have been significant developments within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). On 16 December 2009, the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism agreed to develop a responsive and credible human rights system in the region. Will an Asia–Pacific regional institution include a function to monitor and protect human rights across the region? If so, what are the potential practical benefits of establishing such a mechanism? Could it succeed in effecting policy change in the face of the traditionally strong assertion of state sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs that has characterised human rights discourse in the region? What might be its limits in delivering justice?

This chapter provides an insight into human rights issues in the Asia Pacific, focusing on a little-known place right on Australia’s doorstep: West Papua, a contested territory within Indonesia seeking its independence. Touted as ‘the next East Timor’, inevitable comparisons are made between the newly independent East Timor and the Indonesian province of West Papua. Both are or were once provinces of Indonesia, both are rich in natural resources, and both territories are made up of distinct religious and ethnic minorities that have suffered gross human rights abuse under Indonesian rule and both have experienced United Nations involvement. But West Papua is a province of Indonesia and East Timor is an independent state. The different colonial history of West Papua and East Timor, as Dutch and Portuguese colonies, is frequently cited as the reason for their different status today. But emphasising this difference ignores West Papua’s right to self-determination under interna- tional law. This chapter will provide an insight into both East Timor and West Papua, self-determination and the injustices suffered under Indonesian rule.

The second part of the chapter analyses the international and domestic legal mechanisms available to West Papuans to redress two outstanding demands for justice: their right to self- determination and accountability for past and ongoing human rights abuse under Indonesian rule. Since West Papuans have no recourse to international courts or human rights mechanisms to remedy the injustices they suffer, a regional human rights mechanism may offer their best hope at achieving some measure of justice in the short term. By providing an insight into human rights issues in West Papua, this chapter illustrates in clear, practical terms, the potential benefits — and limits — of a human rights mechanism in the Asia-Pacific for the indigenous peoples of the region…

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