West Papua’s colonial fate — the UN ‘New York Agreement’

August 17, 2022
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West Papua remains an unresolved issue with international implications. Image: AK Rockefeller/Twitter (CC By SA 2.0)

The fate of newly-born nation-state, West Papua, was stolen 60 years ago, on August 15, 1962, in the infamous New York Agreement, a deal between the Netherlands and Indonesia over West Papua’s sovereignty.

A different fate had been intended for the people of West Papua in early 1961, when they elected their national Council from whom the Dutch were asking guidance for the transfer of administration back to Papuan hands.

Several months later, a journalist advocating liberty denounced a secret Washington proposal to betray America’s Pacific War ally Papua to an Asian colonial power.


Declassified United States records reveal that a group inside the White House had begun secret negotiations with the Republic of Indonesia around a proposal for an illegal use of the United Nations International Trusteeship System, which — irrespective of Papua’s objections — would then ask Indonesia to assume control over West Papua.

The “special” nature of the US proposal had the opposite intent to that of international law. The International Trusteeship System — Chapter XII of the UN Charter — is meant to protect a people’s right to independence and have the UN prepare annual reports about the welfare and progress towards independence for each territory the UN has become responsible for, including those invaded and subjugated by UN troops.

West Papua is both.

Instead of protection and annual reports, the UN, by its omission of duty, is enabling Indonesian impunity for military campaigns of terror and administrative suspension of all human rights.

West Papuans have suffered hundreds of thousands of extrajudicial deaths, disappearances and looting of many hundreds of billions of dollars throughout the UN-appointed administration by Indonesia.

Weekly stories of horror are hidden from international news media by an ongoing Indonesian declaration that Papua is a quarantine zone, requiring special permission for NGOs and journalists to enter.

Every principle written into the UN’s charter, the Rules of Procedure of the Trusteeship Council, and even Indonesia’s own New York Agreement have been violated by the ongoing Indonesian conduct, international mining and UN omission of lawful conduct.

These events proceeded against the backdrop of a global movement calling for decolonialisation that rippled across Asia, Africa and the Pacific, with the West and the Communist bloc supporting or opposing one another to gain influence in these movements.

Indonesia, which had been under Dutch rule for more than 300 years, declared independence on August 17, 1945. In the same era, wars broke out in Korea and Vietnam; the world endured the Cuban missile crisis as forces of the West and the Communist bloc continued to clash and reshape the destiny of these new nation-states.

Leading up to the final recognition of their new republic in December 1949, Indonesians experienced another brutal, protracted war to remove Dutch occupation and authority from their nation.

Indonesia’s founding fathers, Sukarno and Suharto, were significant men of their era, with ambitions that placed the Papuan people on the path they are on now, carved by blood, tears, trauma, war, killing, rape, exploitation, betrayal and being cheated at every turn by the world’s highest institutions.

As of today, Indonesians — and those unaware of West Papua’s legal status under international law — think that this is a domestic issue, a narrative that Jakarta elites insist on propagandising to the world.

The truth is that West Papua remains an unresolved issue with international implications. More specifically, the UN still has the responsibility to correct their sixty-year-old mistake.

UN breached its own charter

At least in principle, all 111 articles of the UN Charter are aimed at promoting peace, dignity and equality. West Papua was already listed under the UN’s decolonisation system as a non-self-governing territory before 1962 and the Dutch were preparing Papuans for full independence in accordance with the UN charter's guidelines. The public has been deceived by trivialising this agreement and downplaying it as simply two powers — the Netherlands and Indonesia — fighting over West Papuan territory.

The UN, as a caretaker of this trust, had a responsibility to provide a measure for Papuans to achieve independence. The UN instead handed (abandoned) this trust to Indonesia, who then abused that international trust by invading West Papua in May 1963. This scandalous historical error has brought unprecedented cataclysm to Papuans to date.

Most Indonesians have been fooled by their government to think that West Papua’s fate was decided during a referendum, known as “Pepera” or the “Act of Free Choice” in 1969, which Papuans now refer to as the “Act of No Choice”. Indonesians assume that Indonesian occupancy is good for West Papua, but this is not true: they are unaware that Indonesia is illegally occupying West Papua and their government is in breach of many international laws.

During the period of July to September 1969, the Act of Free Choice was carried out by the Indonesian government. The UN was there but did not act or speak against it. This referendum was one of the items stipulated in the New York Agreement seven years earlier.

About 1025 Papuan elders, among nearly one million Papuans, were handpicked at gunpoint and forced to say “yes” to remain with Indonesia. The UN acted as a bystander, unwilling to interfere with the tyranny taking place before them.

Before the referendum in 1969, Indonesia had already launched a large-scale martial and administrative operation throughout West Papua, instilling fear and setting the stage for the rubber stamp referendum to proceed.

Andrew Johnson and Julian King, Australian researchers who specialised in this case, have argued that West Papua is still a non-self-governing territory, and that Indonesia has no legal or moral right to claim sovereignty over West Papua.

In their ground-breaking seminal work West Papua Exposed: An Abandoned Non-Self-Governing or Trust Territory (2018), Johnson and King conclude that: “Either as a Non-Self-Governing Territory or a Trust Territory, the legal rights of the people of West Papua have been denied with every UN Member responsible and legally bound to uphold the Charter in order to correct this breach of international law.”

It was the right move for the UN to accept West Papua as a Trust Territory. However, the UN abandoned this sacred trust to Indonesia a year later, even though Indonesia’s behaviour prior to, during, and after this agreement had already been in breach of many UN charters and principles.

Secret documents

Declassified documents from the US, Australia and the UN reveal irrefutable evidence of what went wrong behind the scenes prior to, during and after the Netherlands-Indonesia agreement.

The idea of exploiting the UN Trusteeship system to transfer the sovereignty of West Papua to Indonesia was already proposed in 1959 by the US embassy in Jakarta.

Now-declassified document titled “A proposal for Settlement of the West New Guinea Dispute”, dated on May 26, 1959, stated: “Our position of neutrality has served its purpose. It is time we developed a formula to remove this major irritant to Indonesian relations with the West.”

In the US' minds, the formula was exploiting the UN’s mechanisms to give West Papuan sovereignty to Indonesia.

A year later, on March 3 1961, the US embassy wrote: “Unless the New Guinea question can be promptly removed as source of Soviet strength and US weakness, as incipient cause of war and as platform for variety of unhealthful isms within Indonesia, our best efforts in any other direction will fail to achieve our objectives here.”

According to King and Johnson, the 1962 New York Agreement story has been a deception for 60 years; the agreement was not drafted after the Indonesian invasion in 1962. The agreement was proposed by an American lawyer in May 1959, modified in 1960, proposed to Indonesia in March 1961, and executed in 1962.

West Papua is not sold or traded under the Agreement. It is an agreement between UN members to share the responsibility for the welfare of West Papuan people (trusteeship), and it asks the UN to be the “administrator” (occupying force) in 1962. When the United Nations backed the agreement, Pakistani troops were appointed to administer West Papua in 1962, followed by Indonesian troops in 1963.

It appears then that the New York Agreement itself, the terms of reference upon which the UN General Assembly voted on the agreement, the UN’s role from 1962 to 1963, the final Act of Free Choice in 1969, and the UN General Assembly vote on the Act of Free Choice’s outcome were all facades — a treacherous performance fit for a tragic drama.

[Abridged from Asia Pacific Report with the author’s permission. Yamin Kogoya is a West Papuan academic who has a Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development from the Australian National University. He is from the Lani tribe in the Papuan Highlands, and lives in Brisbane.]

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