‘Old guard’ continues to constrain human rights reform in Indonesia

‘Old guard’ continues to constrain human rights reform in Indonesia

Hopes for human rights reform in Indonesia under President Joko Widodo are far from being realised, writes KEN SETIAWAN.

In July 2014, supporters of presidential candidate Joko Widodo (Jokowi) celebrated his victory.

To many, Jokowi’s election represented a break with the past, as he had no ties to existing military or political elites. The new president was also different from his predecessors in other ways—such as his humble beginnings as a furniture seller, his start in politics at the local level as mayor of Solo before becoming governor of Jakarta, and in the way he presented himself to the public, where he preferred to dress casually and displayed his love of rock and heavy metal music.

In Indonesia and abroad it seemed clear that Jokowi was different, and his lack of ties to previous regimes was considered to be an advantage. Time magazine, for example, featured his portrait on its cover with the words ‘a new hope’.

One area where it was expected Jokowi would enact change was in civil and political rights. Nawa Cita, the nine-point priority agenda put forward by Jokowi and his running mate Jusuf Kalla, included combating the narcotics trade as well as ending impunity for those involved in past human rights violations.

Jokowi received much support from Indonesian activists—who also sought to counter the rising popularity of Jokowi’s main rival, retired lieutenant-general Prabowo Subianto—and during the campaign reached out to family members of victims of human rights violations.

So what has come of those election promises—whether perceived or real—with the Jokowi presidency now well into its second year?

International criticism

In the area of civil and political rights we have seen some steps forward, but also disappointments such as the resumption of capital punishment. In 2015, Indonesia executed 14 people, all narcotics offenders. While this gained Jokowi bipartisan support in Indonesia, international criticism was fierce.

The Jokowi administration has explained its stance on capital punishment by arguing that the country is facing a drugs crisis—though the statistics used to justify this claim are questionable.

The resumption of capital punishment also reflected the administration’s law enforcement agenda, which includes the eradication of narcotics. Several observers have pointed out that Jokowi’s support for capital punishment is driven by a quest for popularity—not least within Indonesia’s political elite.

In November 2015, Luhut Panjaitan, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, announced the postponement of executions for the time being so Indonesia could focus on the economy. However, this is far from a moratorium and the 2015 executions are a major stain on Jokowi’s human rights record.

Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla’s law enforcement agenda joins two seemingly contradictory issues: support for the death penalty, which is a clear violation of international human rights norms and, on the other hand, supporting human rights reform by combating impunity for past human rights violations. Jokowi has repeatedly commented that these past human rights abuses are a political and social burden on Indonesia’s new generation and therefore must be resolved. A step was made in this direction when, in May 2015, in response to formal judicial, mechanisms, particularly the human rights courts, the administration announced the establishment of a reconciliation committee. The committee brought together a number of state institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), the attorney-general’s department and the military and national police.

However, just how effective this committee will be must be open to question. In the lead-up last year to the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 killings, it became apparent that many political and societal forces are unwilling to openly discuss these events, let alone apologise or offer reparation for them.

Avoiding responsibility

For many observers—most prominently human rights activists who have long campaigned for a judicial process—the establishment of a reconciliation committee is yet another attempt by the Indonesian state to avoid responsibility for past violations. At the same time, the reconciliation committee symbolises the powers at play in resisting human rights implementation in Indonesia almost 20 years after the fall of the authoritarianism of the Suharto years.

During his election campaign Jokowi also showed a genuine interest in West Papua. In May 2015, he announced the lifting of restrictions on journalists reporting on and visiting the province. However, this announcement was immediately rescinded by Jakarta, including by armed forces head General Moeldoko, who reiterated the requirement of permits for reporters. Furthermore, the significance of lifting restrictions could be questioned when the legal protection of journalists in Indonesia remains structurally weak.

In the same month, Jokowi granted clemency to five political prisoners. However, many others remained behind bars, including Filep Karma, West Papua’s most prominent political prisoner. Karma, however, refused to accept clemency, stating he would accept only a presidential amnesty. When he was eventually released in November 2015, it was the result of a sentence reduction, not an amnesty. Karma himself described his release as nothing more than a move from ‘a small prison to a large prison’.

The inability to address violations in West Papua, including the December 2014 Paniai killings, when security forces opened fire on hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, killing five, also raises questions about the Jokowi administration’s commitment to peace in the province.

In the context of human rights, this challenging situation is complicated futher by questionable cabinet appointments.

It was never going to be easy for Jokowi and his administration. Beyond the inherent intricacies of human rights protection and implementation in Indonesia, the new president was faced with three major challenges from the outset: his lack of control over the legislature, internal struggle within his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), and high expectations for his presidency.

In the context of human rights, this challenging situation is complicated futher by questionable cabinet appointments, such as the appointment of Ryamizard Ryacudu as defence minister. A military hardliner and former commander of Kostrad, the Army Strategic Reserve Command, Ryacudu has been linked to allegations of human rights violations in Papua.

Following a cabinet reshuffle in August 2015, Luhut Panjaitan was appointed coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs. Regarded as one of Jokowi’s closest advisers, Panjaitan served in Kopassus, the Special Forces, which have been involved in serious human rights violations, and has been outspoken in his opposition to addressing past abuses. Activists and legal experts also doubt the willingness of the new attorney-general, Muhammad Prasetyo, to address severe human rights violations.

Jokowi’s cabinet appointments and the discourses around human rights issues in Indonesia reveal the complexity of the situation in which reformers seek to operate. While members of the ‘old guard’ and their supporters remain in positions of power, approaches to the implementation of human rights continue to be ambivalent and even hostile.

Even if Jokowi has the right intentions, it remains to be seen what leverage—if any—he has in a constraining environment where he has limited authority.

To many, Jokowi was different from his predecessors, including in the way he preferred to dress casually. Eduardo M. C./Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

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