Indonesia Reaffirms Sovereignty in International Forums

Indonesia is indicating increased concern for its territorial integrity and international image in the wake of public pressure over deteriorating situations for minorities in the country.

Internal calls for West Papuan independence are making headlines outside Indonesia, spurring transnational human rights groups and NGOs to pressure Indonesia and encouraging the international community to take notice. Religious and ethnic intolerance are also producing conflicts that refuse to go away, resulting in rights violations that undermine Indonesia's economic and democratic successes.

The country has been forced to defend itself against domestic opponents and transnational rights networks over both its sovereignty and its human rights record. These networks are increasingly bypassing dead-end domestic routes and searching for international allies to create outside pressure, as illustrated by the establishment of a "Free West Papua Campaign" office in the UK.

Rather than making concessions or instrumental adaptions to such pressures, Indonesia has refused to render its practices subject to international jurisdiction, denying criticisms, even calling a damning Human Rights Watch report "naive".

Yet on the issue of territorial integrity, Indonesia is considerably more forthright in reinstating its sovereign position and in asking other states to reinforce theirs. The official response to the opening of the "Free West Papua Campaign" office in the UK, was to demand answers from the British ambassador, who restated the UK's commitment to respecting Indonesia's territorial sovereignty.

During the ensuing diplomatic commotion, only one Indonesian lawmaker, Golkar Deputy Speaker Hajriyanto Thohari, publicly stated the underlying distrust around international respect for Indonesia's sovereignty.

"We often hear that officially, international leaders, including from the big Western governments, say they're supportive, that Papua is a part of Indonesia," he said as quoted in the Jakarta Globe.

"But look at the case of the exit of East Timor from Indonesia in the old days. How much the Western nations said they supported our sovereignty. But along the way, due to the interference of foreign nations, the province was lost," Hajriyanto said. "The West is always like that, you can't trust them completely."

Meanwhile the unofficial response based on these fears is a strategic operation to strengthen regional solidarities with a focus on mutual respect for and protection of territorial integrity. Via the proposal of an Asian treaty that would ban the use of force in settling disputes in South East Asia, Indonesia's current foreign policy preoccupations stipulate an acknowledgement of its sovereign boundaries.

Last Thursday during his visit to Washington, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa proposed an "Indo-Pacific-Wide Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation". He said nations should not "attempt to create new realities on the ground or at sea" and that states should be upfront about frictions in the Asia-Pacific region.

Some of these frictions are territorial disputes involving China, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan, or hostile ones such as North Korean nuclear proliferation.

Natelegawa said that the region doesn't want "the unchecked preponderance of a single state", and also cautioned against feuding by rival states. China and the US were not specifically mentioned. Indonesia wants to be seen as a leader in the Asean region, but it is also setting up stronger rhetoric in order to defend sovereign incursions closer to home.

A stronger regional union made up of an Asian community would circumvent pressures such as shaming by transnational actors in international human rights regimes, where non-conforming states are isolated as pariahs and socialised into institutionalising international norms.

The Indo-Pacific treaty is similar to that proposed by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2009. Although in 2010 after he was ousted, WikiLeaks cables revealed a hidden agenda to use the community to "contain" China's rising influence.

This time, however, Indonesia may be more concerned with strengthening and defending its sovereignty while it nurtures its influence in the dynamic region.

Whereas the Rudd treaty had a solid architectural purpose, Natelegawa's approach is more ambiguous and fluid, which appeals to the diversity of culture and aspirations across the region, and with any luck China, who is difficult to pin down on multilateral agreements.

Internal territorial disputes should not be underestimated as driving factors in such a treaty, as Indonesia is stalwart in retaining every last inch of its archipelago. Papua is most prominent but not the only concern. Recent controversy over a new Acehnese flag illustrated that Jakarta remains tense about the possibility of lingering separatist sentiment.

It's not the first time that Indonesia has appealed to regional solidarities to challenge the validity of universal human rights and to ward off the influence of the international community. Last year the country was instrumental in the construction of an alternative charter of Human Rights, the Asean Declaration of Human Rights (ADHR).

The ADHR is supposed to cater to Asian values rather than a Western oriented idea of 'universal' human rights, which in cultural relativist debates is seen as ethnocentric.

The UN however is concerned by the closed door drafting that left out stakeholders like civil society, and also that the wording of the charter is not in line with international standards.

Human Rights Watch is far more scathing, asserting that the declaration contains loopholes and pointing to coercion from stronger states.

"It is highly regrettable that governments in the Asean who are more democratic and open to human rights succumbed to the pressure of human rights-hostile governments into adopting a deeply flawed instrument," the Human Rights Watch statement declared.

Balancing individuals' obligations and duties with their human rights makes the declaration a less secure guarantee for Asean people as does limiting rights on the grounds of 'national security', 'public order', and 'public morality'.

The positive factor in this is that Indonesia is aware of its international reputation and is being drawn into discourse with transnational actors, going so far as to coordinate regionally, even if the rhetoric is for now instrumental.

This may be a period of denial and evasion, yet as long as Indonesia is vulnerable to international pressures in order to retain success like investment grade ratings, a broadening middle class, flourishing civil society, and an emergent Asean leadership role, transnational networks can mobilise effectively, fast paced democratisation will continue and Indonesia will have to introduce tactical concessions to address Human Rights violations.

(Lauren Gumbs is a Human Rights student who holds a Masters in Communication. she resides in East Java, Indonesia.)