Is a UN resolution on Papua possible?

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At the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 4, Vauatu Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil called on the council "to consider adopting a country mandate on the situation of human rights in West Papua".

What does this motion mean? This motion is not novel. Rather, it is a renewed call by Kalosil, which he had previously presented to the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly last November.

Although it is not unusual for a UN member state to request an investigation into the state of human rights in another state, such a motion is largely unfavorable among member states and generally meets fierce opposition from targeted countries and their allies. Growing concern among the UN groupings has contributed to the politicization of the development of a country mandate, as this has been labeled a "naming and shaming" tactic.

During the era of the Human Rights Committee, the council's predecessor, the African grouping, for instance, viewed the mandate as a continuation of Western colonialism in disguise.

As a result, the African grouping managed to end the country mandates for their continent. The Asian grouping shared the same point of view, despite its failure to achieve a unified voice to advocate for this position. Currently, there are 14 country mandates, including six mandates for the African grouping, six for the Asian grouping, one for the Eastern European grouping and one for the Latin America-Caribbean grouping. None is assigned for the Western grouping. In contrast to the thematic mandates, which rapidly multiply, the country mandate remains significantly low in number within the HRC.

The more important question, however, is why Vanuatu is so persistent in raising the issue of human rights in Papua and West Papua at the UN forums, despite minimal support from its neighbors in the Pacific and its own Asia-Pacific grouping within the UN itself? In its right of reply, Indonesia played down Vanuatu's endeavor.

It argued that the issue of Papua simply served as a commodity for Vanuatu's domestic politics, not for Papuans. This argument also pointedly refers to a recent visit by the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) to Jakarta, Ambon, Malukku, and Jayapura, Papua, as well as the existing bilateral cooperation agreement between Indonesia and Vanuatu.

While the MSG's visit took place on the invitation of Jakarta, the purpose of the visit significantly changed. Instead of implementing the 2013 MSG communiqué, the visit put a strong emphasis on economic cooperation with Indonesia, not on the human rights situation of Papuans. That is why Vanuatu officially withdrew itself from the delegation.

The visit to Jayapura was meaningless. No meeting was organized for the delegation to meet with survivors of human rights abuses or civil society organizations. The only meeting was held between the MSG delegation and bureaucrats and politicians. As a result, the Papua New Guinea delegation was quoted in online media stating there were no human rights abuses in Papua.

Such a conclusion is understandable, given that the delegation only met bureaucrats and politicians who may not be subject to gross human rights abuses.

A harder question that Vanuatu has to answer is its existing ties with Indonesia. Vanuatu cannot pretend that the agreement on bilateral cooperation in development does not exist.

Surely, Vanuatu can argue that it is acting on the principle of responsibility to protect (R2P) principle, which was recently endorsed by
the UN. Grounded in Article 24 of the UN Charter, the principle redefines the essence of state sovereignty as a responsibility, rather than simply immunity from public scrutiny.

The state holds the primary responsibility for the protection of its people. Where a population is suffering serious harm, such as a genocide, crimes against humanity, an internal war, insurgency or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to fulfill its responsibility, the principle yields to the international responsibility to protect.

As Kalosil emphasizes, Papua has long suffered not only from crimes against humanity committed by Indonesian state actors but also from the negligence of the international community to act. It is arguable, therefore, that the R2P is applicable for Papua.

Nonetheless, we are all aware of the high politics that exist within the UN system, to which Indonesia is no stranger. On the contrary, it is a significant player within the HRC as well as the UN system at large. Indonesia actively engages in the UN Peace-building Commission to promote peace around the globe.

It also continues to contribute troops to MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the deadliest protracted conflicts in the Great Lakes area of Africa. Having managed to sign a peace deal with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), Indonesia has also been sought by ASEAN countries for advice in dealing with armed conflict in the region. Indonesia possesses sufficient credentials as a peace promoter.

Vanuatu, on the other hand, is no novice either. Together with Nauru and Timor Leste, among others, it managed to put French Polynesia back onto the agenda of the UN Decolonization Commission. Of course, a resolution on Papua cannot be secured overnight.

It will be a long and painful journey for Vanuatu if this small and politically unstable country persistently works on it. It has to mobilize support within the UN to secure enough votes to pass a resolution, which will probably not happen in the near future.

In the meantime, Papuans should be well aware of the reality that this is just the beginning.