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The UK’s involvement in the Papuan crisis

West Papua

Last month, British mining company Rio Tinto confirmed plans to sell its $3.5bn (£2.7bn) stake in Grasberg, the world’s largest gold and second largest copper mine in Indonesia’s remote Papua region.

The move came after an attempt to regain trust from investors that dropped the company on ethical grounds. Since it joined its operations in Grasberg with American mining conglomerate Freeport-McMoRan in 1996, Rio Tinto has faced accusations of complicity in environmental devastation and human rights abuses in the area.

Covered by thick tropical rainforest hosting some of the world’s most biodiverse environments, Papua was once considered an untouched paradise.

Yet, the political and environmental struggle its inhabitants are facing is hardly known to most, and neither is the role of foreign investors like Rio Tinto and British Petroleum – both of which bear responsibility for this forgotten crisis.

Oppressed and marginalized

Published in July, Amnesty International’s report, said that Papua is a land plagued by poverty, underdevelopment and political oppression.

In 2014, President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo committed to improving the region’s situation, a test which, according to Amnesty, the government ‘like those before it,’ has failed.

The report revealed that, between 2010 and 2018, 95 victims of suspected unlawful killings were recorded in Papua, none of which were followed by independent criminal investigation.

‘A major issue regarding the Papuan crisis has been the culture of impunity surrounding the widespread cases of unlawful killings and abuses against civilians,’ says Papang Hidayat of Amnesty International Indonesia.

Since it passed under Indonesian control in 1963, following the termination of Dutch colonial rule, Papua has never known peace.

A political struggle for self-determination emerged in the early 1960s under the leadership of the Free Papua Movement which was met by Jakarta with growing repression.

It is estimated that between 100,000 and 500,000 Papuans have lost their lives in the conflict, most of which were civilians killed by security forces.

Alongside political repression, the region has also suffered from a long-lasting condition of underdevelopment and marginalization. Today, of all Indonesian provinces, Papua has the lowest life expectancy and the highest infant and maternal mortality rates.

Earlier this year, the tragic death of over 100 children caused by a measles outbreak in the remote regions of Asmat and Okab sparked worldwide condemnation. Indonesian newspaper The Jakarta Post criticised the government’s delayed response to the emergency, pointing out that warnings about low immunization levels had reached the Health Ministry as early as September 2017.

The shadow of Grasberg

Blessed with abundant natural wealth, the conflict-torn Papuan region may well fit the evils of what is often defined as a resource curse. -meaning mineral wealth in developing countries frequently proves an irresistible temptation for states to rely on extractive rents, courting transnational companies while neglecting the socio-economic development of their resource-rich areas.

‘From the very beginning, economic interests in Papua were too high for the Indonesian government to let it go its own way,’ says Adriana Sri Adhiati, a coordinator at the UK-based Indonesian human rights organization Tapol.

Military leader Haji Mohammad Suharto assumed power in 1967 and chose to open up the country to Western investments.

One of the main projects on the table of negotiations was the Grasberg mine located in the Papuan Highlands. ‘There was no space for Papuan claims on Suharto’s agenda,’ says Adriana.

Today, Grasberg represents one of Indonesia’s biggest tax revenue sources, with mine reserves worth approximately $100bn (£76bn).

Over the decades, Grasberg has turned into a symbol of the Papuan conflict. Freeport spends $5m (£3.8m) annually for government provided security - a move that has effectively militarized the whole area as clashes between Indonesian forces and local communities continue to grow more violent.

A study published in 2001 by Dr Chris Ballard at Australian National University found evidence of ‘the extrajudicial killing of as many as 200 people between 1975 and 1997’, in and around the Freeport contract of work area almost all of them were unarmed civilians.

‘There has never been consent from local communities as far as the Grasberg site is concerned,’ says Andrew Hickman of the London Mining Network, an alliance of development and solidarity groups in the UK.

‘This is extremely relevant given the project’s environmental and social costs,’ he says.

When Rio Tinto teamed up with Freeport, it was well aware of the controversies surrounding the site.

‘Since 1997, over 200,000 tonnes of tailings (mining waste) are dumped into the river ecosystem every day. This mining practice destroys the coastal and river areas in the Mimika regency,’ said Indonesian environmental campaigner Pius Ginting at the company’s annual general meeting held in London last April.

Rio Tinto, however, has always denied any responsibility for the situation.

In 2008, Norway’s pension state fund divested from Rio Tinto by selling its $650m (£500m) stake in the company, justifying their decision on ethical grounds linked to Grasberg.

In an attempt to regain the trust of socially-concerned investors, the company has recently negotiated with Indonesia to exit the mining operations in Grasberg. A move, however, which Andrew views as an easy way to escape accountability for its past misconduct.

When he asked the company how it intends to address the situation in Grasberg once it has left the mine, chairman Simon Thompson replied: ‘I am not sure I can answer the question.’

Despite widespread criticism generated by Rio Tinto’s policies, the UK’s attitude towards the British corporation is lenient if not entirely accommodating.

‘Recent conservative UK governments have focused on supporting British businesses abroad, from the mining to the oil and gas industry. This includes Rio Tinto,’ says Andrew.

‘The company, listed at the London Stock Exchange, is hugely dependent on investment from the financial world of the city, which UK governments could have regulated according to minimum ethical standards. But they have deliberately chosen not to do so,’ he says.

Green light for British Petroleum

The UK’s position on the Papuan crisis is controversial to say the least.

In 2002, the country granted asylum to Papuan leader Benny Wenda, who fled Indonesian jail where he was facing trial for having allegedly led an independence rally which cost a police officer’s life.

Since then, Britain has attracted a wide array of civil society movements campaigning for Papuan rights. The International Parliamentarians for West Papua, for example, was launched in 2008 by the support of several British MPs, including its co-founder and current Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Despite this, British foreign policy in Papua continues to back Indonesian rule to guarantee its interests in the region, which go well beyond the mineral sector.

‘There is a deep disconnect in the British political system between economic logics and discourses around political freedom,’ says Mr Hickman.

He highlights David Cameron’s meeting with Benny Wenda in 2009 to express empathy for his political struggle.

‘Some years later, in 2015, Cameron visited Indonesian President Widodo in Jakarta and they signed a bilateral agreement to expand British Petroleum (BP)’s project in Papua by around $3.8bn (£3bn),’ he says.

The project was kickstarted in in the Bintuni Bay area. BP’s Tangguh gas field is now the largest investment in the Papuan region. Since Tangguh’s inception BP has endeavoured to distance itself from the controversies surrounding Grasberg.

‘More than half of our workforce in Tangguh is Papuan,’ states the company on its website. ‘We are committed to reaching an 85 per cent Papuan workforce by 2029.’

Yet, in Andrew’s view, Tangguh and Grasberg bear a fundamental similarity: ‘Both projects present a scenario where foreign companies have come into Papua to make a deal with the Indonesian government and profit from natural resources. No consensus has been sought from local communities.’

‘But BP has managed to keep criticism away, using great efforts to rebrand itself.’

‘It set up an organization called the Tangguh Independent Advisory Panel (TIAP) that has acted as a buffer between the company and the civil society. BP is paying for public figures to sit on this panel.’

TIAP’s previous chairman was US Senator George J. Mitchell, Obama’s special middle-east envoy.

‘BP hired Mitchell, a well respected left leaning politician, to be the public face of corporate responsibility,’ Andrew continues..

‘But how can the panel claim to be exercising independent scrutiny when its members receive financial remuneration from BP itself?’

The Tangguh project, according to studies conducted by the campaign group Down to Earth, has led to profound disruptions to local people’s lives, including loss of traditional land and wildlife, waste generation from industrial activities and restricted access to coastal fishing areas.

Yet, BP’s efforts to boost its public image have been undeniably successful in the eyes of the business community, granting the company full-scale British support for its operations in Papua.

Indonesian security forces carry the body of a police officer who was killed near Grasberg. Credit: Antara Foto/Jeremias Rahadat via Reuters

Sponsoring repression

The UK’s involvement in the region has gone even further. A report published in 2016 by the Politics of Papua Project at the University of Warwick highlighted another serious, yet often overlooked issue.

‘Britain provides training and delivery of military equipment to Indonesian forces, including units deployed in Papua,’ the study states.

Researcher Connor Woodman, who co-authored the report, explains that the UK has developed a strong relationship with two units, both heavily involved in the Papuan conflict.

The first is Kopassus, an elite force of the Indonesian army that has been accused over the decades of extensive human rights violations in the country.

‘Long-lasting relationships between the UK and Kopassus were interrupted in the late 1990s, when it came out that the unit was the main genocidal force in East Timor,’ says Connor. ‘In 2008, Obama restarted training Kopassus; the UK followed shortly after.’

He reveals that Cranfield University in south-west Oxfordshire has been running a joint MSc in Defence and Security Management with the Indonesian Defence University in Jakarta.

‘Since 2009, 53 Indonesian military officers have been trained in the UK as part of the program, supported and funded by our Ministry of Defence. Many of them are Kopassus officers,’ Connor adds.

The second, perhaps more controversial Jakarta-Westminster partnership concerns Detachment 88, an elite anti-terrorism squad of the Indonesian Police Force. Formed after the 2002 Bali bombings which killed over 200 people - mostly tourists - the unit has been heavily deployed in the Papuan region, particularly around Grasberg, to counter local separatists.

Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, has criticized Detachment 88 for having ‘an appalling record of human rights violations’ in Papua, arguing that they treat non-violent political expression as a criminal activity and arresting political activists on dubious charges.

‘The UK is the second largest trainer and funder of the unit,’ says Connor. ‘The British government sends Metropolitan Police officers to train Detachment 88 personnel in Jakarta,’ he adds.

A few years ago, Connor made enquiries with the Foreign Office to question the UK government’s controversial relationship with the force.

‘They have no interest in seeing how their material support to Indonesia is effectively employed. One of the staff told me: “They (Detachment 88) do what they want, we have to care about the security of British tourists in Bali.”’

A troubled horizon

In recent years, calls for a referendum for Papuan independence have been raised in large numbers - an outcome which looks unlikely, given the huge economic interests at stake.

‘If East Timor had so many resources like Papua, it would have probably never seen independence,’ says Pelagio Doutel, an East Timorese-born Tapol worker.

With tensions between Papua and Jakarta remaining high the future of the region looks far from certain.

On the one hand, Benny Wenda recently said that ‘dialogue with Indonesia is not the answer for West Papua.’ On the other, President Widodo has not proved capable of meeting the high expectations that followed his election.

In this context of political division, the UK would find itself in a key position to lead negotiations aimed at easing the Papuan crisis. Not only because of its privileged ties with both parties, but especially given the UK’s moral responsibility stemming from its complicity in this troubled corner of the planet.

Today, experiences of terror, violence and discrimination are still part of Papuans’ daily lives. As remote as these stories may appear, they are in fact much closer than we care to acknowledge.



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