How is Indonesia’s human rights record stacking up?

Asia World

Authors: Fadhilah F Primandari, University of Indonesia and Anisha Maulida, University of Brawijaya

The administration of Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo accomplished little in the human rights realm last year in Indonesia. Jokowi’s 2019 election campaign promised to protect democracy and deliver justice to the victims of human rights violations.University students and members of Indonesian labour organisations take part in a protest over human rights, corruption, social and environmental issues in Jakarta, Indonesia, 28 October, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan).

University students and members of Indonesian labour organisations take part in a protest over human rights, corruption, social and environmental issues in Jakarta, Indonesia, 28 October, 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan).

Political figures linked to historic human rights violations, such as former defense minister Wiranto and new Minister Prabowo Subianto, have prominent government positions. Clearly, human rights are not a central issue for this administration.

Indonesia’s government has also taken measures to curb public dissent and criticism. In March 2019 a pro-democracy and human rights activist was arrested under the charge of defamation for speech critical of the military. Other similar charges have been used against people deemed to have insulted the government. Between 2014 and 2019 Amnesty International documented 241 cases where people were charged with hate speech or insulting authority figures in the government.

Protections for minority rights continue to be lacking. Indonesia still does not acknowledge LGBTQ rights, and the anti-sexual violence bill proposed in 2017 has stalled. Indonesia’s handling of Papua faces criticism because of a policy choice to shut down the internet.

In September 2019 student demonstrations opposing a controversial draft criminal code limiting individual freedoms and privacy as well as revision of the Corruption Eradication Commission law also put substantial doubt over the government’s commitment to human rights. Demonstrators were met with violence and detained. Journalists covering the protests were also pressured to erase recordings, particularly where police misconduct was involved. This reflects the government’s indifference to democratic freedoms and human rights.

Amid these disheartening developments, one stands out: the re-election of Indonesia to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Last October Indonesia officially retained its seat on the UNHRC for the fifth time. Indonesia sold itself ‘as a true partner for democracy, development and social justice’. However, its re-election campaign sits in contrast to reality and to the concern of human rights advocates.

How did Indonesia maintain this UNHRC position?

Indonesia has, over the long term, achieved progress in governance standards and institutional development. In response to the demands of demonstrations around the fall of former president Suharto, the Indonesian government legally recognised human rights in the Constitution and established bodies aimed to promote its advancement.

It established the National Commission on Human Rights, the National Commission of Violence Against Women and the National Commission for Child Protection, for instance. The government also legalised non-governmental organisations supporting human rights, including Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia — a legal aid foundation — and KontraS.

In 2018 Jokowi formally supported the UN ‘HeForShe’ campaign. He emphasised the country’s commitment to increasing female representation in parliament, providing better access to reproductive health services, ending violence against women and girls and erasing barriers to economic opportunities for women.

Indonesia also plays a role in promoting human rights internationally. It set a benchmark in the Asia Pacific for being among the first countries to set up a human rights commission and played a leading role in establishing the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (OIC-IPHRC).

Every year, Indonesia demonstrates commitment to promoting democracy and human rights through the Bali Democracy Forum.

Further, Indonesia’s humanitarian diplomacy must be acknowledged — such as in Palestine and Myanmar. In 2018 Indonesia also joined the EU’s ‘Good Human Rights Stories’ initiative.

Indonesia’s re-election to the UNHRC had the highest vote count in the Asia Pacific — even beating Japan and South Korea. But the UNHRC is not made up of countries with clean records. The body has faced criticism over decisions to elect countries known for violations. For example, it includes the Philippines, whose government legitimised extrajudicial killings in its fight against drugs. Indonesia’s re-election should not be seen as an outstanding achievement in itself.

So what does membership mean? Membership does not automatically pave the way for Indonesia to become a greater exponent of good values. Candidacies are not void of politics and membership may be used to further domestic interests. This was reflected in a membership statement last year from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterating the importance of fighting for national interests and sovereignty.

Human rights must be elevated on the government’s agenda. Indonesia’s youth, exposed to democratisation, will continue to demand more. The government must align the visions and missions of its established human rights agencies and non-government organisations under the supervision of the Coordinating Ministry for Politics, Legal, and Security Affairs.

Strengthening these bodies would further build Indonesia’s image as a country that truly does care about human rights.  Membership must be taken as an opportunity to double down on the domestic effort to protect human rights and to inspire other countries to do the same.

Fadhilah F Primandari is a final year political science student at the University of Indonesia.

Anisha Maulida is a recent graduate of the University of Brawijaya.

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