Yale Law students in the school’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic released a report on Dec. 10 detailing human rights abuses in West Papua, Indonesia, the western half of the island of New Guinea.
The report, which was prepared over the course of several years at the behest of the Indonesia Human Rights Network, found considerable but inconclusive evidence that the Indonesian government acted with the intent to commit genocide against indigenous West Papuans at various times during the past 30 years.
“Although no single act or set of acts can be said to have constituted genocide, per se — there can be little doubt that the Indonesian government has engaged in a systematic pattern of acts that has resulted in harm to — and indeed the destruction of — a substantial part of the indigenous population of West Papua,” the report says in its conclusion.
Elizabeth Brundige ’98 LAW ’03, one of the lead authors of the report, said there was clear evidence of “horrible” human rights abuses in West Papua. But it was not easy to definitively label these acts as genocide, she said.
“The part that is more difficult to prove is if there was the requisite intent to commit genocide,” Brundige said.
Brundige, who has worked on the report since its inception, said there is a difference between the current situation in West Papua and previous situations in Rwanda and Nazi Germany, where governments publicly expressed their intent to wipe out an entire group of people.
Law School professor and Lowenstein Clinic Director James Silk said the issue of human rights abuses in West Papua was new to many of the students in the Lowenstein Clinic. But he said many of them had heard of problems in parts of Indonesia, such as now independent East Timor.
“[The students] weren’t aware that in some of the other territories that are part of Indonesia, there are serious human rights abuses,” Silk said.
Silk said the Lowenstein Clinic had hoped from the start to use the West Papua report to draw international attention to the situation.
“We wanted to bring this paper to the attention of organizations concerned with human rights but also to the attention of governments and the United Nations,” Silk said. “We were hoping to use the report to generate discussion, particularly with officials in the United States government who have connections to the Indonesian government.”
Indonesia first gained control of West Papua in 1969, when the United Nations-sponsored “Act of Free Choice” transferred sovereignty over the area from the Netherlands to Indonesia.
Silk said the students he supervised had to prepare their report using incomplete documentation of abuses in West Papua.
“For the early period of Indonesian control, [the students in the clinic] relied on a fairly limited number of secondary sources,” Silk said. “In the more recent period, there have been good efforts by West Papuan human rights activists to document abuses.”
Brundige said that since the report’s authors did not go to West Papua to do fact-finding research, their final analysis was based primarily on secondary sources and primary sources that had been collected by other people.
“We certainly had access to enough information for a very comprehensive report, but our report highlighted the need for further documentation,” Brundige said.
Silk said he was involved in supervising the report’s preparation, but that the students in the clinic did all of the research and writing. He said the students also organized a round table discussion with experts on West Papua and experts on genocide about the issues at stake there as part of their research.