The Role of the UN Secretary-General’s Representative in Resolving the Dispute over West Papua


Ambassador Fernando Ortiz-Sanz

The UN Secretary-General’s Representative, Ambassador Fernando Ortiz-Sanz ,acknowledged early on that he “. . .was not given any political or administrative authority, not even a supervisory function”. Rather, his role was to “advise, assist and participate in arrangements which are the responsibility of Indonesia for the act of free choice, having in mind the interests and welfare of the people of the territory”. (Article XVII and the preamble. UN doc. A17723, 1969, p. 4.) “Advice” was meant “to express views, offer counsel, make recommendations and suggest appropriate measures to the Government, having in mind the existing principles of the Agreement”. (Article XVII and the preamble. UN doc. A17723, 1969, p. 4.). 

This was to be done through the modality of consultations with the representative councils on procedures and appropriate methods to ascertain the will of the people; the formulation of questions in such a way as to permit the inhabitants to decide whether they wish to remain or sever their ties with Indonesia; and the preparation of a list of persons eligible to participate in the act of free choice.Although these were not binding, the Government of Indonesia had accepted these suggestions in an earnest effort to facilitate the task entrusted to the Secretary-General. “Assistance” was to be extended as and when needed. The meaning of the term “participation” was not clearly defined in the Agreement but the UN Representative interpreted it to mean UN “ presence in the territory” in an effort “to improve the democratic conditions of the exercise” of the act of free choice. Thus, the UN staff traveled all over the territory and communicated with the people concerning the political situation and state of public opinion. They were also present at the consultations with the representative councils, during the election of members of the consultative assemblies and when the act of free choice took place.

On its part, the obligations of Indonesia were to make arrangements for these purposes in order to give the people of the territory “the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice” (Article XVII). In this context, Indonesia was expected to take into account the advice of the UN Representative, the position taken by the representative councils as well as the rights and freedoms guaranteed to the people of Papua especially the right of free speech, freedom of movement and of assembly and the freely expressed will of the population.

The efforts to implement the Agreement were jeopardized by Indonesia’s temporary withdrawal from the UN and by the consequent absence of UN staff from IrianJaya. But in a statement issued on 16 August 1968, the Government of Indonesia reaffirmed its belief that “the conduct of free choice will constitute a final solution” of the dispute over West Papua.. This means that we show our good intention to implement an international agreement which we have accepted”. It called upon the UN Representative to “cooperate and help the Government of Indonesia to decide on the most proper technique, which is democratic and in line with the special conditions and situation in West Papua for the implementation of the final phase of the New York Agreement”. Subsequently, the UN Representative confirmed the “positive attitude on the part of the Government of Indonesia.. .in the act of free choice… the Indonesian authorities did their best, in spite of the physical difficulties prevailing in West Papua (West Papua) to facilitate the performance of my mission…”.

The UN Representative has thus tacitly acknowledged the willingness of the Central Government and local authorities to give serious consideration to his suggestions, took every opportunity to spread information about the significance of the act of free choice, and in fact, was present in the territory observing its exercise in various Regencies. The Representative went even so far to conclude, “it can be stated that, with the limitations imposed by the geographical characteristics of the territory and the general political situation in the area, an act of free choice has taken place in West Papua (IrianJaya) in accordance with Indonesian practice, in which the representatives of the people have expressed their wish to remain with Indonesia”.

However, there exists a critical difference between the use of the words “in accordance with Indonesian practice” and the call in the Agreement for an act of free choice “in accordance with international practice”. This was reflected in the reservations expressed in the concluding remarks of the Representative’s Report concerning the implementation of some provisions of the Agreement relating to “the rights, including the rights of free speech, freedom of movement and of assembly, of the inhabitants of the area”. This was an attempt to diffuse Indonesia’s responsibility inherent in the Agreement, deflect attention from the limited role of the UN envisioned therein and belittle the special circumstances prevailing in the territory, deriving mainly from its ruggedness, the difficulties in communication and generally the low level of development of the population. Such a stance ignored the fact that the act of free choice was a delicate political issue in Indonesia, and hence, should be dealt with care and caution. It was also a source of controversy among the politically conscious West Papuans which called for discretion and circumspection. These factors taken together, had internal security implications which could not have been marginalized without jeopardizing the nation’s stability Still, legally organized political groups were allowed to function. Because it was not easy to make people comprehend the complicated nature of the Agreement and the real issues at stake. Freedom of speech to the extent of immunity from prosecution was granted to deputies in all representative councils. Thus, the exercise of basic rights and freedoms which goes along with responsibilities were not denied.

Notwithstanding these formidable obstacles, the Government of Indonesia responded favorably to the UN Representative’s suggestions to provide the inhabitants with information concerning the basic issues involved so that they would be able to decide with an open mind and objectivity whether to maintain or sever ties with Indonesia. This was done through an information paper explaining the New York Agreement and additional information concerning what the Government was doing regarding the act of free choice through newspapers, news sheets and radio broadcasts. Thus, the Government has fulfilled its duty in adequately informing the people of West Papua and explaining at some length the methods to be followed for the act of free choice.

Indonesia was also conscious of its responsibility to ensure – within the framework of law and order, the social and political complexities of the country and democracy as practiced in Indonesia – the basic rights and freedoms which alone will enable the people of the territory to translate their convictions into realities. These were guaranteed by the Indonesian Constitution. It was equally important to satisfy the international community that a fair and truly democratic judgment has been rendered by the people of West Papua. However, the situation was immeasurably complicated by the activities of the so-called “Free Papua Movement” or “Free Papua Organization” which was aided and abetted from abroad and engaged in terrorist methods to achieve its nefarious political aims. They never secured any support from the average West Papuan who preferred to remain loyal to Indonesia. Hence, from the beginning, their intention was to oppose, sabotage and wreck the implementation of the act of free choice.

The chosen policy was widespread intimidation, threats and terror. The difficult economic situation was a fertile ground for propaganda, indoctrination and agitation. Despite provocations, the authorities pursued a policy of restraint and moderation in combating insurrection and armed confrontation and adopted a policy of clemency and leniency Accordingly, scores of political detainees were released in order to create an atmosphere conducive for the exercise of the act of free choice. The same lenient policy was also evident towards the question of the return of exiles who could then participate in this exercise. In sum, contrary to the assertions of the UN Representative, the rights and freedoms of West Papuas were upheld, there was freedom of speech, and political and other organizations were allowed to function in accordance with the laws of the country

Another issue on which divergent positions were taken was the UN Representative’s proposal for a one-man-one-vote to be used in the urban areas where communications and transportation were comparatively better, while advanced cultural level of the population and the availability of administrative apparatus would facilitate such a process. This was to be complemented by collective consultations in the less accessible and less advanced areas of the interior, It was claimed that such a “mixed system” would be the best possible modality considering the geographic terrain and human realities which called for “ a realistic criteria.”

The inapplicability of one-man-one-vote was based on the reality that with the exception of the tribal chiefs and other community leaders whose contacts with the missionaries and local authorities have made them prone to express their views on political issues but the population were illiterate and not interested in these issues. Furthermore, Indonesia has consistently opposed the right of self-determination on the ground that it would challenge the struggle for, and the Proclamation of Indonesia’s Independence which already constituted the exercise of such a right for all the people of Indonesia. In effect, the people of West Papua could not be separated from their historical background and Indonesia’s struggle for freedom and their feeling of oneness with the rest of the country to achieve this objective.

A compromise was found to resolve these differing approaches: an act of self-determination or an act of free choice. The latter modality was chosen whereby the wishes of the people would be ascertained. In Indonesian terminology and practice, this is called musjawarah, i.e., consultations towards consensos to secure their approval for implementing the act of free choice through the regional councils which would be enlarged to form consultative assemblies. These assemblies would not reach a decision through voting but through musjawarah which is a decision-making procedure based on discussion, understanding and knowledge of the problem. The results of the musjawarah in the assemblies constituted the final result of the act of free choice for the whole province.

The validity of the Government’s position has to be seen in the imperative need to conform to the specific geographical, social and human realities which existed in West Papua and which unavoidably conditioned the method to be adopted for the act of free choice. Still, in a spirit of compromise and cooperation, Indonesia agreed with the UN Representative for three pre-requisites to be fulfilled both prior to and during election of members to the consultative assemblies: sufficiently large membership, the representation of all sectors of the society and new members to be elected by the people.

It can be seen from the foregoing that the Government of Indonesia accepted many but not all proposals and recommendations of the UN Representative for the implementation in a democratic manner the provisions of the New York Agreement. The letter and spirit of that document was clear. It was more a political than a juridical document. This is because the implementation of the act of free choice was from the outset a political proposition and as conceded by the UN Representative, only Indonesia had the political authority to take decisions concerning the act of free choice. Consequently, the role of the UN Representative was limited and devoid of any political function. Hence, the task of devising a simple and practical method of carrying out the act of free choice became Indonesia’s responsibility and was submitted to the representatives of the people of West Papua who were capable of understanding the complexities involved and who represented all segments of the people in the territory The requirements of democracy was also taken into account, albeit adapted to the specific socio-cultural conditions that prevailed in the territory

Barring the lapses and indiscretions noted above, the role of the UN Representative was professional, indeed exemplary, in implementing the provisions of the New York Agreement and in fulfilling his responsibilities on behalf of the Secretary-General. Yet, there have been allegations that the UN was utilized by Indonesia as a cover to carry out the disputed act of free choice as Jakarta was determined never to offer an opportunity for Papuans to separate from the Republic. Such a dubious claim was based on the assertion that the reduction of UN staff from the original number of 50 to a token 16 was not sufficient to monitor and supervise the act of free choice for the large area of West Papua; the UN never had any intention of pressing Jakarta to hold a genuine act of self-determination; and, in fact, the UN leadership was in collusion with Indonesia to legitimize their take over and annexation of the territory. All of these taken together have violated the terms of the New York Agreement which has become null and void.

On closer examination, however, these allegations are without foundation, and hence, warrant summary dismissal. To transplant Western democratic methods and practices would not only be erroneous but also unrealistic in the context of the realities in West Papua. This is due to the specific conditions, the internal social dynamics and tradition of society, the level of advancement and the philosophy of life of Indonesians – all of which differ from those prevailing in Western countries. The Dutch did not challenge the veracity or outcome of the act of free choice. Any derogation or significant departures from the Agreement might have provoked criticism or even condemnation by the General Assembly In fact, the General Assembly did not discuss or pass judgement; it only “took note” of the Secretary-General’s Report. For, the act of free choice was in conformity with the generally accepted norms of political representation in some parts of the world where representatives were elected or selected by their respective communities, thus given an opportunity to the general population to be involved in that process. This was the litmus test about the fairness and validity of the act of free choice and constituted the ultimate solution to the question of West Papua.

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