The United Nations, West Papua and the Act of Free Choice: de-colonisation in action


From 1950 until October 1962, West Papua was on the UN General As-sembly’s list of non self-governing territories. It had in fact been inscribed on that list by the Dutch, who, as the administering power, had also sub-mitted annual progress reports to the UN on conditions and develop-ments within the territory. Beginning in 1959, elected regional councils were set up with the aim of introducing democratization at both local and regional levels. Internal documents from the period indicate that the Dutch planned to establish an independent West Papuan state by 1970. Beginning in 1959, elected regional councils were set up with the aim of introducing democratization at both local and regional levels. At the same time efforts were made also to ‘Papuanise’ the administration so that a sufficient number of local people would be trained to take over once the Dutch had finally left. In short, one could argue that from the late 1950’s at least the Dutch were attempting to pursue a, rather belated, policy of genuine de-colonisation.

However, West Papua’s journey towards independence faced a major stumbling block in the form of Indonesia and its leader President Sukar-no. Sukarno’s argument was that Indonesia had sovereignty over all ter-ritories of the Dutch East Indies Empire – and that included West Papua. The Dutch response was that they had only administered West Papua as part of the East Indies because their minimal presence there did not warrant a separate colonial administration. More importantly, the Dutch argued that the vast majority of West Papuans were Melanesian and ethnically and culturally completely different to the Asian Indonesians. Their natural links lay instead with Australian New Guinea and the rest of Melanesia.

In September 1961, as Indonesian pressure grew, the Dutch presented the “Luns Plan”, to the UN General Assembly to resolve the dispute. They proposed to hand the territory over to a UN administration that would remain until the population was considered ready to exercise their right to self-determination. In the end, although most member states voted for the plan, it did not get the required two-thirds majority by the General Assembly to be passed.

Bolstered by political support and massive arms shipments from the So-viet Union, the United States and some European countries, Indonesia threatened war. Alarmed at this growing Soviet influence in a SE Asian country, the United States concluded that the best solution was for Su-karno to get his way. President Kennedy therefore put increasing pressure on the Netherlands to negotiate with Indonesia. When it became clear that neither the US, Australia nor Britain intended to offer military sup-port to the Netherlands in the event of a war over West Papua, the Dutch reluctantly agreed to sign the August 1962 New York Agreement with Jakarta.

The New York agreement was signed by the Netherlands and Indonesia regarding the administration of the territory of West New Guinea. The first part of the agreement proposes that the United Nations assume administration of the territory, and a second part proposes a set of social conditions that will be provided if the United Nations exercises a discretion proposed in article 12 of the agreement to allow Indonesian occupation and administration of the territory. Negotiated during meetings hosted by the United States, the agreement was signed on 15 August 1962 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

The agreement was added to the agenda of the 1962 United Nations General Assembly and precipitated General Assembly resolution 1752 (XVII) granting the United Nations authority to occupy and administrate West New Guinea. Although agreements are not able to negate obligations defined in the Charter of the United Nations, and the agreement asserted that it was for the benefit of the people of the territory, some people believed that the agreement was sacrificing the people of the territory for benefit of the foreign powers. A United States Department of State summary from 1962 asserts the “agreement was almost a total victory for Indonesia and a defeat for the Netherlands”, that the United States “Bureau of European Affairs was sympathetic to the Dutch view that annexation by Indonesia would simply trade white for brown colonialism”, and that “The underlying reason that the Kennedy administration pressed the Netherlands to accept this agreement was that it believed that Cold War considerations of preventing Indonesia from going Communist overrode the Dutch case.”