West Papua and the International History of Decolonization, 1961-69

27 July 2021

Scholars of international history have argued for the separation of decolonization struggles in Africa and Asia between 1945 and 1965 from Pacific struggles that occurred after 1960. Yet the West Papuan campaign for independence demonstrates how deeply connected decolonization in the Pacific was to anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia. In their petitions to the United Nations, West Papuan activists drew on race and rights discourse – evoking the principles of Pan-Africanism and self-determination – to appeal to African leaders and the UN General Assembly. Ultimately West Papuan claims to independence were foreclosed due to the shifting terrain of international politics and global governance of the 1960s. Papuan activists found it hard to gain support amidst the rise of Third World power, shifting politics of human rights and self-determination, and the dynamics of the Cold War. The very conditions that had created opportunities for African and Asian nations to achieve independence worked against the claims of the West Papuans. In this article I argue that expanding the geographies and temporalities of decolonization creates a more international history of decolonization and demonstrates the transformation of anticolonial politics and global governance in the 1960s.