Under fire: New Zealand aid and violence in West Papua

Members of Indonesia's police force train at the Jayapura Regency Police Station. Local policemen of West Papua, Indonesia are reportedly involved in instances of human rights violation, prompting New Zealand to rethink its aid program that trains and equip these law enforcers. Photo by: New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

A New Zealand-supported project designed to train and equip local police in Indonesia’s West Papua draws concerns and calls for a rethink of the country’s aid program following reports of increasing violence and human rights violation to members of the local communities by these uniformed men.

Just a few months ago, the project received another NZ$6.34 million ($5.17 million) over three years, a move found baffling by some local politicians.

“There have been a long series of issues and incidents in West Papua. I get reports about these kinds of incidents and the police are involved regularly with violence on citizens,” Catherine Delahunty, a New Zealand member of parliament, told Devex. “It’s a really big concern for me that our police force is concerned with the aid program which is basically whitewashing the way the Indonesians are handling their police forces in West Papua.”

The project, first implemented in 2009, was put in place to help bring order in the conflict-ridden province of West Papua, where separatist movements and massive killings have been happening for more than half a century.

Stories of violations by the police officers were kept under wraps for several years. But a recent undercover report by a local journalist, Paul Bensemann, revealed the brutality of the local police force to the civilians in West Papua, particularly to those vocal about their views against the repression happening.

The crimes vary in different forms with several arrests and attacks based on petty reasons such as hairstyle.

“Talking with West Papuans myself, there’s regular day to day events and those include things like arresting West Papuans for having the wrong hairstyle in market places. The police have been seen cutting off their hair,” Delahunty explained. “There have been some attacks to people who are known to be political activists. Majority of [the people] do not feel safe with the police at all and they have a reason to feel that way.”

Issue of human rights

The problem, suggested Delahunty, partly stems from the lack of acceptance by local communities of the New Zealand aid program.

“In all other cases [alluding to similar efforts in the Pacific], the program is welcomed by the chiefs of local villages. It is supported by the indigenous people of their country,” the politician explained. “It’s a very different situation when you have your indigenous people not welcoming those, like the situation in [West Papua]. We have [the New Zealand] police forces coming over to train a police force that’s utterly contaminated without the consent of the people.”

The original idea was to provide training in community policing, where uniformed men aim to have a good relationship with the rest of the local community. The result was the opposite: Journalists were kidnapped, activists were killed, ordinary citizens were nabbed and brutally punished and beaten to death, according to reports.

For Delahunty, instead of putting the more than $6 million aid money to this project, which proves to be doing more harm, it should be earmarked for programs that promote human rights and citizen participation and mobilization of West Papuans, making them active agents of their own development pursuit.

“It’s easy to argue that maybe the money should not be in the police [program] … but the biggest need at the moment is human rights justice,” she explained. “So what we should do is listen to what West Papuans have to say. We should use this money to pay for community development mediation between West Papua and Indonesia with New Zealand playing a mediator role.”

Aid community’s role

According to Delahunty, the international aid community has a role to play in addressing the situation.

Historically, though, she acknowledged, the international community “was part of the problem,” citing the alleged involvement of the United Nations in a fraudulent deal between Indonesians and the Dutch in the 1960s in taking control of West Papua.

“One of the biggest challenges is to break the silence around the world about West Papua,” said the politician.

She added: “The international community has a role and they can take feedback from the Australian and New Zealand community and say ‘Look, you are neighbors and as neighbors, the most useful thing you can do as responsible neighbors is to support the peace process rather than provide any form of military exchange.’”

Indonesia’s relations with Australia and New Zealand were marred by several issues the past couple of months including issues of maritime intrusion, asylum seekers and careful balance of trade.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.