Indonesia's Not-so-Human Rights

On December 10, the world commemorated the 60th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Joseph Saunders, the deputy program director of Human Rights Watch in New York, who lived in Indonesia for two and a half years in the 1990s, answered this question: Do human rights violators today face more intense pressure when they trample on rights than they did 60 years ago? The answer, he said, is a resounding yes.

However, Indonesia’s posture in terms of respect for and adherence to human rights principles needs to be examined critically, and, given the ominous attacks on minority religions over 2008, the country has to look critically at worsening intolerance on the part of hard-line fundamentalists.

Historically speaking, the human rights movement has come a long way and today it has become a strong feature of most of the world’s constitutions, observed or not. Also, many governments have created human rights ministries and signed international treaties as supported by the United Nations Human Rights Council and the UN Human Rights Commissioner for Human Rights. And the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands is one great leap forward in protecting fundamental human rights.

In Indonesia, the Constitution Undang-Undang Dasar 1945 acknowledges at least 15 human rights principles: self-determination (Preamble and article 1), citizenship (article 26), equality before the law (article 27), work (article 27), decent life (article 27), association (article 28), express an opinion (article 28), religion (article 29), national defense (article 30), education (article 31), social welfare (article 33), social security (article 34), independent judiciary (elucidation of articles 24 and 25), preserve cultural traditions (elucidation of article 32), and preserve local language (elucidation of article 31).

Indonesia is also an elected member of United Nations Human Rights Council among 47 members of 63 contenders, of which other 12 Asian countries are Bangladesh, Bahrain, China, India, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka. Thus it looks good on paper.

On April 11, 2002, The Rome Statute 1998 was ratified by 60 states which brought the International Criminal Court being. However, Indonesia has yet to ratify this statute, regardless of the current 56 ratifications and 62 signatures from other states. In 2004, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono adopted a National Plan of Action on Human Rights, which states that Indonesia intends to ratify the Rome Statute in 2008.

The International Criminal Court has been making significant progress in its five years of operation. It is the first permanent court mandated to prosecute the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and “crime of aggression.” On crime of aggression, there will be no prosecutions until the states come into an agreeable definition. Saunders said it is expected that the first trial will get underway this year although the court has been under attack in recent months following the issuance of an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan on charges pertaining to genocide in Darfur.


While today we can see noteworthy progress in human rights adherence and protection, particularly after the overthrow of the strongman General Suharto in 1998, the pace of progress needs to be accelerated. One bit of significant progress was the prosecution for the poisoning murder of the human rights lawyer Munir Said Thalib, despite the justice system’s failure to prove the former Indonesian intelligence figure Muchdi Purwopranojo responsible for this high-profile assassination.

Other than that, impunity is still the nagging keyword. Conscientious people are still waiting anxiously to hear news on thorough investigations and prosecutions of the greatest massacre of the 20th century, which occurred in 1965-1966 in the name of “communist eradication” in which an estimated 500,000 people were killed in Indonesia without fair trials as well as the May 1998 riots in the wake of the Asian Financial crisis, the Semanggi Tragedy I and II in which university students were shot, the East Timor massacre and religious killings in Aceh.

Freedom of religion, also one of basic human rights acknowledged in the Indonesian constitution (article 29), seems to be a continuing concern requiring immediate attention. Last September, the unorthodox Muslim sect Ahmadiyah was banned in South Sumatra with a provincial decree. In June, Ahmadiyah followers were prohibited from expressing their religious activities publicly or face up to five years of imprisonment. Many Ahmadiyah mosques throughout Indonesia have been attacked and the followers intimidated physically.

Another Islamic sect Al-Qiyadah Al-Islamiyah has also been labeled “heretical” and its founder Abdul Salam was sentenced for four years in April 2008, under accusations of blasphemy. In July, a 20-year old Christian theology school was attacked in East Jakarta, forcing an involuntary closing. In January 2008, a Hindu temple in West Lombok was burnt down by a mob.

At this point, the Indonesian government leadership seem to be wearing their best tuxedos while smiling meaningfully to look good on paper and to make strong political statements that Indonesia is a country where human rights are guaranteed and respected. We, the people, must make sure that those are not killers’ smiles and torturers’ faux friendliness. The time to act is now. And it does not take a person of Munir’s caliber to be an activist or even a dissident.

Jennie S. Bev is an Indonesian-born author and columnist who contributes to the Jakarta Globe and Jakarta Post. She is a former law lecturer and composition adjunct professor.