INDONESIA: Impunity rules as country marks 62nd Independence Day

Indonesia, which received the second highest number of votes in elections to the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this year, will celebrate its sixty second Independence Day on August 17, 2007. Given these election results, we could imagine that Indonesia is considered as being a moderate nation which consistently promotes and protects human rights. However, a closer look reveals a different picture, as many serious human rights problems remain in the country.

Corruption is perhaps the biggest issue in the country at present and is a catalyst that worsens many human rights problems. Almost all major national newspapers have regular front-page stories concerning corruption, but such cases only tend to involve medium-rank bureaucrats. High-ranking government officers are in general untouchable by the legal apparatus. In addition, more and more cases of judicial corruption are coming to light. Judicial corruption has contaminated the various institutions, including the police, the prosecutor’s office, as well as lawyers. The strong nexus that exists among these actors reinforces their impunity. In this environment, the killing of judges becomes more likely.

Torture: This practice is considered as being one of the most heinous human rights violations. Despite its ratification of the Convention Against Torture in 1998, Indonesia still has no law that clearly and legally defines or criminalises torture. Consequently, many cases of torture can only at maximum lead to prosecutions for so-called “maltreatment,” which fails to address the gravity or distinct nature of the practice of torture or the all-important role of the State in this grave violation. As a result, those perpetrators that are successfully prosecuted have been handed relatively light sentences that do not match the gravity of their crimes, and victims do not receive appropriate or acceptable reparation.

Gross violations of human rights: Indonesia has also experienced gross violations of human rights that were allegedly committed by the military forces. In infamous cases from Tanjung Priok to Talang Sari, from Trisakti to Semanggi, from 1965 to 1998, gross violations have been committed and the truth about these events, in which vast numbers of Indonesian citizens have been subjected to the most grave human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances, remains hidden. In the Tanjung Priok case, there is an effort to reconcile the victims and the perpetrators, although this equates more with an amnesty for the latter than any real justice for the former. No literature on international human rights law recognizes amnesties as being the best way to elucidate such gross violation of human rights. In Talang Sari, in which over 200 villagers were allegedly massacred by the Indonesian Army, the victims are easy to find, but the government is reluctant to identify the perpetrators. In such cases, no-one will be charged with a crime. How then can such violations be dealt with and prevented in future? How can justice be provided to the victims and their families?

In Trisakti and Semanggi, hundreds of students were viciously shot and killed, allegedly by either the police or the military. In 1965, people were easily labelled as being communists and just as easily killed as a result – the fatalities are thought to number over one million. Many survivors still face stigmatization, which continues to make their lives difficult to date. In the massacres in 1998, which are also known as the May Riots, many Indonesians of Chinese descent became victims. Men were burned alive and killed. Women were raped and murdered. Surviving children faced serious trauma.

Impunity: Despite widespread knowledge and condemnation of the horrific events described above, the perpetrators of these acts still enjoy impunity, without fear of being brought to justice. None of the huge number of killings mentioned above have been investigated. No perpetrators have therefore been prosecuted and convicted. This deeply entrenched impunity leaves the door wide open for the possibility of future massacres.

Violation of economic, social, and cultural rights: A recent case that exemplifies the severity of such violations is that of the Lapindo mudflows. Lapindo Brantas, a company with shareholders in the government has allegedly caused mudflows that have been used as a justification to forcibly evict thousands of people from their homes in East Java, for ‘safety’ reasons. The residents were moved into refugee camps were they were supplied with expired food by the government. Komnas Ham, Indonesia’s National Commission for Human Rights, has stated that it considers Lapindo Brantas’ drilling activities on the site, which caused the mudflows, as being a violation of human rights. Since the first occurrences of the mudflows in April 2006, the government has not taken any significant steps to stop the company from causing further mudflows. Instead, the flows have increased. Rather than ordering the company to pay adequate compensation to the victims, a presidential decree has been issued according to which Lapindo Brantas would buy the land from the victims. The government’s approach cannot in any way be considered as amounting to appropriate compensation – parents are destitute and their children are receiving their school education in tents, with only the minimum necessary facilities.

Indonesia has experienced many serious human rights problems, but none of these have been addressed in an acceptable or effective way. With all of these dark stains in its recent history, which continue to be swept under the carpet, it is an issue of grave concern that Indonesia should receive so many votes in its election bid to the UN Human Rights Council and be allowed to go about its business as if it were a State that respects and protects human rights.

The Republic of Indonesia, which has as its motto “Unity in Diversity,” has rich natural resources and a high population, and is expected to turn into a developed nation in the years ahead. Can a country really ever move so far forward with such underlying human rights black holes still in place or will it remain ?