Opinion: Western Arrogance in Indonesian Courts

The death penalty has been shown to have little deterrent effect and will always be vulnerable to miscarriages of justice. Likewise, laws against drugs tend to generate more crime in the form of protection rackets, murder and money laundering than they prevent social ills.

That said, the outcry from Australia (and others) about Indonesia’s probable execution of their nationals for large-scale drug smuggling has all the characteristics of western arrogance, a belief that their citizens should not be subject to the same penalties as locals. Their sense of morality and human rights is superior.

It is doubly insulting to Indonesians that somehow use of the death penalty will result in serious if unspecified consequences for relations, be they diplomatic or commercial. It is equally insulting to suggest that somehow President Joko Widodo is not a serious reformer but rather a cynical politician for not granting clemency to these convicts.

While it is true that the Indonesian judicial system is riddled with corruption and incompetence, there is no suggestion in this case that the accused, caught red handed because of an Australian tip-off, were anything other than guilty. Indeed we now have the spectacle of them claiming remorse and to have reformed and become good, god-loving people. “They could, wouldn’t they,” as was once famously remarked.

The comments of Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, that Indonesia should give clemency to the two Australians because of Australia’s help for Aceh at the time of the tsunami tragedy was recognized at home as another of the gaffe’s for which Abbott is noted. Nonetheless, it reflects an attitude of mind which is very common in western countries, as much in the self-styled liberal media as traditionalist right-wing circles of Abbott is part.

The Australians (and Dutch and French) should remember that abolition of the death penalty is a relatively recent in most western countries. The last such execution in Australia was in 1967 and the penalty was not finally removed from the statute books till much later. Many states in the US still practice it. As for Asia, it is the norm not the exception, even if the actual use varies from very frequent in China and (relative to population) Singapore, and rarely in Japan and even more rarely in India. The Philippines is the only Asean country without it, and the law there has changed several times in the past three decades.

Nor is it entirely irrelevant that most Indonesians – and not a few Australians – support it. While political leaders are meant to lead not follow, those who preach democracy cannot escape the popular expectation that some crimes deserve the death penalty. Indonesia would certainly do well to seriously consider whether the penalty should be abolished on the grounds that it is ineffective, in which case it can probably convince enough of the public and the legislature to abolish it. But it is not for Australians or French to be claiming some higher morality.

Curiously the western governments which show huge concern about a few criminals who are their nationals have also been engaged in foreign wars (Afghanistan and the Middle East and North Africa) which involve the frequent killing of non-combatants and execution of individuals believed, but not proven to be, the enemy, often by drone from the sky. They do not see the irony. Likewise the push for international laws against ethnic cleansing and targeting civilians in wars – supposed war crimes and crimes against humanity – while they were till recently prime users of such tactics.

In short it is desirable that Indonesian abolish the death penalty but western outrage will offend more than it will change policy. The same applies to Singapore’s canings and executions.

Leading the charge of condemnation of Indonesia is Amnesty International. It declares all executions to be a violation of human rights – a reasonable principle to hold but one which cuts little ice in much of Asia. Noteworthy too is that while the media ensures a big noise when foreigners, especially western, are involved its voice elsewhere is weak.

Well-known western NGOs once formed to address specific issues have become great bureaucracies of do-gooders with attendant self-promotion and money-raising activities. Thus Amnesty, once focused on obtaining the release of political prisoners, now opines on all manner of issues which come under some vague “human rights” umbrella, in one case at least aligning with a group with a very illiberal agendas. Thus too Oxfam, once dedicated to famine relief, now has an ever-expanding array of activities which include pushing dubious economic policy advice, gender equality and combating Ebola. It gets nearly half its money from western governments.