It has been a month since Susi Air pilot Philip Mark Mehrtens was taken hostage by the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB) in Nduga, in the highlands of Papua Pegunungan Province. Despite putting the West Papua issue back in the international spotlight, the hostage-taking of civilians is regrettable and unjustified based on international human rights and humanitarian norms.
The incident began after Mehrtens landed a Pilatus Porter PC-6 Susi Air plane at Paro Airport, Paro District, in Nduga Regency, to deliver five Papuans from Timika, 7th February 2023. Troops from the TPNPB’s War Area Command (Kodap) III Ndugama-Derakma ambushed them and released the passengers, setting the plane on fire and taking the pilot hostage.
The TPNPB promised to release Mehrtens if the government met their main demands, which was recognising West Papua's independence. Otherwise, the TPNPB claimed to be recruiting Mehrtens to train their troops to fly planes.
The government has set up a team composed of police and military for the hostage release operation. Local governments as well as members of churches and local community leaders were also deployed to establish communication with the armed group. But there was no resolution, especially because the TPNPB wanted United Nations mediation.
Two weeks ago the government said it had located the hostages' whereabouts. However, the New Zealand Government called on Indonesia to exercise restraint and to continue to use persuasive methods and to negotiate with Mehrtens’ captors. New Zealand does not want the issue to become of international concern.
Aside from the New Zealand Government's concerns, TAPOL supports the use of negotiation and persuasion as the most sensible path to resolve this situation. The government should not be led by those who wish to launch military operations to rescue Mehrtens, because the track record of similar military operations in the past has resulted in an increase in the number of civilian casualties who were not involved in armed conflict. Indonesia must be careful that the outcome of the 1996 Mapenduma hostage crisis that ended with the special forces storming the place where hostages were held, resulting in the deaths of two hostages and their captors, is not repeated. This incident shows that there is no place for reckless decisions that could put the lives of hostages at risk.
Considering what has happened since the hostage-taking incident has begun, TAPOL states:
- The act of taking hostages cannot be justified through the lens of humanitarian law and international human rights law. Moreover, the pilot was a civilian and was not involved in the armed conflict between the TPNPB and Indonesian security forces.
- We hope that Mehrtens will be treated humanely while in captivity. He must not be subjected to any torture or ill-treatment. His mental and physical wellbeing must be guaranteed by his captors and basic provisions must be granted to him. Torture and ill-treatment are prohibited in any situation, whether during peacetime or in armed conflict situations, by international human rights and humanitarian law.
- The Indonesian government must continue to prioritise negotiations while involving competent, authoritative, and neutral international third parties.
- There should be no place for the involvement of the Indonesian National Military (TNI), the Indonesian National Police (Polri), let alone the Military’s Special Forces Command (Kopassus), in negotiations nor influencing decisions related to negotiations.
- We urge conflicting parties, in this case the TPNPB and the TNI/Polri, to adhere to the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution, in order to prevent civilians - both the pilot who is being held hostage and other civilians in the surrounding area - who are not involved in the armed conflict from becoming victims of unjustified actions including violence.
- The Government of Indonesia has a responsibility to guarantee and protect the human rights of civilians who must be relocated (Internally Displaced Persons / IDPs) due to security problems in Nduga. Apart from fulfilling these guarantees, it must also give serious consideration to admitting international agencies with experience in providing aid to IDPs.