A petition banned by the Indonesian government, but bearing the signatures of 1.8 million West Papuans – more than 70 percent of the contested province’s population – has been presented to the United Nations, with a demand for a free vote on independence.

Exiled West Papuan independence campaigner Benny Wenda presented the bound petition to the UN’s decolonization committee, the body that monitors the progress of former colonies – known as non-self-governing territories – towards independence.

The petition was banned in the provinces of Papua and West Papua by the Indonesian government, and blocked online across the country, so petition sheets had to be “smuggled from one end of Papua to the other,” Wenda told the Guardian from New York.

Independence campaigners have been jailed and allegedly tortured in Papua for opposing the rule of Indonesia, which has controlled Papua (now Papua and West Papua) since 1963. Those signing the petition risked arrest and jail.

“The people have risked their lives, some have been beaten up, some are in prison. In 50 years, we have never done this before, and we had to organize this in secret,” Wenda said.

“People were willing to carry it between villages, to smuggle it from one end of Papua to the other, because this petition is very significant for us in our struggle for freedom.”

The petition asks the UN to appoint a special representative to investigate human rights abuses and “put West Papua back on the decolonization committee agenda and ensure their right to self‐determination … is respected by holding an internationally supervised vote.”

West Papua was formerly on the decolonization committee’s agenda – which monitors progress toward decolonization and independent rule – but was removed in 1963.

Wenda said it felt to him that West Papua’s referendum “had already happened” and that the petition was a manifestation of the people’s desire for independence.

“The people have already chosen, people have signed the petition with their blood and their thumbprint. We are optimistic, confident, that in a few years, we will have progress. This is not just an activist issue; this has gone up to government level, to diplomatic level, up to the United Nations.”