On Wednesday night I went to Victoria University to hear Dr José Ramos-Horta, former President of Timor Leste, speak about regional and global politics.
Dr. Ramos-Horta is a Nobel Laureate (1996), co-awarded the Peace Prize for his work in exile working for Timorese independence. The Nobel Committee cited his sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of the Timorese people, hoping the award would spur efforts towards the realisation of their right to self-determination.
Since then Dr. Ramos-Horta has continued to act as a global leader.
- He is a member of ISPO, a world-wide association of citizens who aim to use their votes in a globally-coordinated way to help solve ‘our planetary crisis’. ISPO believes that transnational citizen action is vital because “global markets and multinational corporations so comprehensively overpower individual nations that no politician dares make the first move to solve global problems for fear of competitive disadvantage”.
- And he is a member of the Global Leadership Foundation, which works to support democratic leadership, prevent and resolve conflict through mediation and promote good governance in the form of democratic institutions, open markets, human rights and the rule of law.
More recently he has also been a senior UN peace negotiator in a variety of crisis management missions, and was chairman of the UN’s High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations which reported to the General Assembly and Security Council last year ((A.70/95-S/2015/446, 17 June 2015). The report is the latest in a series of UN reports that seek to improve and strengthen conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and crisis management.
The message he gave to his NZ audience this week was compelling: we need to deliver peace over the long-term through development (in the forms of the new Sustainable Development Goals), through more proactive conflict prevention, and capable and rapidly-deployable UN crisis missions that have clear mandates. It was a masterful overview of the challenge and complexities of maintaining international peace and security.
During question time, Dr. Ramos-Horta was queried on his views on the issue of West Papua. As an expert on the subject, he rightly based his answer on the principles of international law as enshrined in the contemporary era.
The UN Charter identifies as one of its main purposes, the development of friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of self-determination. Deriving from this, the human rights covenants declare that all peoples have the right of self-determination, by virtue of which they may ‘freely determine their political status’. But when self-determination is to be realised, and how, is not a simple issue. The UN’s declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples (1960) provided the principles and guidelines for the decolonisation movement. The UN’s Special Committee implements the process.
There are currently 16 non-self-governing territories on the Committee’s list. West Papua is not one of them. The UN General Assembly recognised a referendum in 1969 and the continued integration of the province in Indonesia. Critics argue that the referendum was fundamentally flawed, and that a second should be held. Migration of Indonesians into the province since then makes a majority for independence by no means guaranteed, as is the case with Malvinas/Falklands in the Argentina/UK dispute.
Many, such as Dr. Ramos-Horta, argue that the problems in West Papua are most constructively seen as a human rights and developmental challenge to be resolved by Indonesia, rather than through secession. Greater regional autonomy is usually accepted as the durable and most peaceable solution to this kind of problem, something that is generally realized through political and diplomatic pressure on the sovereign state.
This is not to decry the passion that peoples all around the world have for freedom and representative government. But it is to point out the complexity of these kinds of issues, the dangers of intemperate action, and the need for sustained and purposeful political and diplomatic work.
The danger lies in the fragility of the sovereign state order, as recognised under the UN Charter. It is not perfect, but it is the established structure for political legitimacy in the contemporary age and it needs to be respected and safeguarded.
There are many hundreds of secessionist movements around the world – in 108 UN member states. They are present in 30 countries in Africa, 29 countries in Asia, 26 in Europe, 13 in America and 10 in Oceania. In most of these countries there is more than one secessionist movement; in Indonesia, for example, in addition to West Papua there is Aceh, Kalimantan, South Moluccas, Minahasa and Riau. They need to be treated with respect, and with circumspection.
Green policy asserts that New Zealand should promote self-determination as an essential step in the attainment of universal peace. There should, we say, be a review within the Pacific Islands Forum of the status of non-self-governing territories in the Pacific that are not currently subject to UN monitoring (Tahiti, Wallis & Futuna, West Papua). We should give general support for the self-determination movements there. But self-determination can rest on any one of three outcomes: devolution, autonomy or independence. The choice belongs to the people themselves, by referendum.
There is a strong and unavoidable argument, resting on inherent human rights, for redress of the problems in West Papua, both historical and contemporary. But there is no magic solution. A clear understanding of the complexities and nuances of international relations is a necessary condition, of a durable, and painstakingly attained, solution. This was, I think , the message of Dr. Ramos-Horta, the other evening.