Why Indonesia must look backwards to build a stronger future

By Salil Shetty, salilshetty

It is an honour to be here to give the second of this year’s Yap Thiam Hien human rights lectures.

I am here at a time when Amnesty International is establishing a new national office in Indonesia, which we hope will give us a more present role in the already very active and strong human rights movement in the country.

Yap Thiam Hien was one of the leading lights of the human rights movement in this country, and Amnesty is looking to be part of the collective efforts to build on his legacy and strengthen justice, equality and human rights in Indonesia.

Indonesia is a country which rightly has optimism and strong aspirations for the future. It has a strong state, a relatively free press in all but Papua, and a longstanding liberal tradition that allows strong social movements to thrive.

It is an outward-looking country, host of the ASEAN secretariat and with aspirations and the potential to play a leadership role in this region.

But Indonesia also has a dark recent history of conflict and large-scale human rights abuse. This continues to cast a shadow over the country to this day. Today I would like to talk about the bright future that Indonesia can rightfully seek – by reckoning with the past.

Put simply, a stronger future for Indonesia has to be built on a foundation of justice. In order to move forwards and truly realise its potential, this country must also look backwards and deal with the legacy of the past.

That will be painful and difficult, it will aggravate old wounds and perhaps open new ones. But it is also necessary.

I would like to use my time to look at the legacy of past abuses which I believe Indonesia must confront, and then to suggest some ways forward to a brighter future for all Indonesians.

Let me be clear that Indonesia has some outstanding resources to work with. And the greatest asset is the people: this is a country where the marginalised have been able to find voice across the country, and people’s participation is strong and deep.

Looking backwards

 

Everyone in this room is surely familiar with the crimes of the past committed in Indonesia. Whether it was the events of 1965-66, the riots of May 1998, the abuses committed under President Suharto’s rule and during the Reformasi period, or the conflicts in Aceh, Papua, and East Timor (now Timor-Leste), victims have faced insurmountable obstacles in seeking any form of justice from the courts.

In all but the smallest handful of cases, the perpetrators of often serious human rights violations have walked free. Crimes against humanity, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, sexual violence, and other very grave human rights abuses have simply gone uninvestigated, unpunished. For decades, impunity – the lack of accountability – has reigned. Independent investigation and prosecution mechanisms are nearly absent, and political will for change is lacking. Military tribunals have been used to shield perpetrators of crimes.

When President Joko Widodo came to power in 2014, hopes were raised. People perceived that there could be justice for gross violations of human rights, that the courts would address them. In his Nawacita campaign vision, President Jokowi recognised the burden of Indonesia’s past human rights violations and reaffirmed his commitment to confront them. He promised to tackle the impunity wrought by the existing military justice system.

But so far, words have not turned into action. Huge numbers of victims and families have no redress, no reparations, no access to justice. Indonesia’s stubborn record of impunity remains, and the open wounds of the past have never healed.

Indonesia’s record of impunity

Let me now turn to three examples of how Indonesia has failed to deal with the legacy of the past.

Firstly, of course, the heavy burden of 1965-66.

It is difficult to overstate the extent of the horrors of 1965-66. You are all familiar with it: following a failed coup that year, the Indonesian military launched a large and systematic attack against members of the Indonesian Communist Party and suspected sympathisers. Against that backdrop, abuses were committed on a horrific scale. There were unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances, rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced displacement, forced labour and slavery. An estimated 500,000 to one million people were killed. Hundreds of thousands were detained without charge or trial.

More than half a century later, these egregious abuses remain deeply unaddressed. Decades on, the survivors still wait for truth and justice.

One of the survivors, who has gathered with other survivors outside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta for an hour every week for the past ten years, told us in starkly modest terms what they want: “We simply ask that the government provide justice and truth. We want to show this country that the function of courts should not be to imprison victims and then release them without process”.

Second, the case of Aceh, where between 1976 and 2005 between 10,000 and 30,000 people – many of them civilians – were killed. In July 2016, the Aceh Provincial Parliament appointed seven commissioners to the Aceh Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to operate between 2016 and 2021. It has a mandate to uncover the circumstances that led to these abuses, to ensure that shared experiences are acknowledged and preserved, and ultimately to guarantee that such crimes will not happen again.

Yet to date, the central government has not declared its support for the TRC. Without that support, without the momentum to change, the TRC’s work cannot rely on any cooperation from the national institutions it needs to function effectively, including the police and military forces.

And thirdly, the case of an individual: Munir, the founder of the KontraS human rights organisations and one of Indonesia’s finest human rights campaigners, assassinated over 12 years ago.

Munir had taken up the cause of dozens of activists who had experienced enforced disappearances during the last months of the Suharto government. He also played a key role in uncovering evidence of military responsibility for human rights violations in Aceh and Timor-Leste.

In 2004, President at the time Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stated that resolving Munir’s killing would be a “test of our history”, for Indonesia’s democratic reform process.

Thirteen years later, the lack of accountability in Munir’s case is not only a travesty in itself, it also has a chilling effect on those who seek to stand up for human rights, for the idea of accountability itself. Whether it is other human rights activists, or journalists in Papua, there is near-total impunity. That in turn creates a climate of fear among the very people who could break the deadlock by seeking accountability. It is a toxic cycle.

Despite the fact that President Jokowi has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitments to bring to justice those responsible for Munir’s murder, his government still refuses to recognise openly the 2015 Munir Fact-Finding Team’s Report. And in October 2016, the Public Information Commission ruled that the 2005 report into his killing, which allegedly implicated some senior intelligence officers, should be made public, but the government successfully appealed that.

It is not the right signal to be sending.

Incremental progress

So continues the inertia and disregard for human rights and the rule of law, the unwillingness to investigate killings by the security forces. In most cases that have been taken forward, members of the security forces face no prosecution but are simply given disciplinary sanctions when they are found to have committed human rights violations.

Despite commitments made, millions of victims and families are still denied truth, justice and reparation.

Despite promises by President Jokowi during his election campaign, we simply have not seen enough action.

Small steps forward have not yielded any real fruit. In April last year, the government organised a symposium on 1965-66, bringing together survivors, scholars, human rights activists, the military, and government officials. They gathered to give testimony about the events that happened across Indonesia at that time. But not only did they fail to agree a way forward to end impunity, the government also ruled out making a formal apology for their role in these crimes.

Many more instances of internal meetings or public events about the mass human rights violations of 1965-66 held by victims’ groups or human rights organisations were disbanded or harassed by vigilante groups, while police failed to intervene.

Ultimately, the failure to deal with the past poisons into the present and the future. We need to find a way to move forwards from the unhealthy deadlock.

An agenda for the future

So now I would like to turn to what dealing with the past might look like for Indonesia. How can the country build a forward-looking agenda rooted in justice?

Ensuring accountability and ending impunity

The first point is very obvious. Quite simply, Indonesia must bring an end to the impunity for past abuses and ensure there is accountability.

The situation of almost complete impunity in the country has a toxic effect. It has fuelled a general malaise and mistrust among people about the administration of justice by the government for the people of Indonesia.

The longstanding absence of progress in securing justice for serious human rights violations, and the failure to carry out comprehensive reforms of the security services is a serious impediment to establishing the rule of law in the country. Some of those who are suspected of crimes under international law remain in powerful positions where they could repeat such violations. Some have risen to near the apex of the political system.

In the wider context of inequality, corruption and the abuse of power, all this achieves is that it eats away at trust for the state. The current climate of injustice exists in a context where indigenous people, religious minorities and women continue to face discrimination and abuses, often with impunity. In resource-rich parts of the country like Papua and Aceh, there are disproportionately high levels of poverty and access to basic services.

It leads us to ask: is justice nothing more than a luxury for the powerful? That is a recipe for long-term damage.

Now is the time for Indonesia to take serious and immediate steps towards justice. That means carrying out prompt, independent and impartial investigations. It means that wherever there is enough evidence, those suspected of crimes are prosecuted before the national courts, in trials which meet international fair trial standards.

Enacting a truth and reconciliation law

Secondly, victims and their families have called persistently over many years for the Indonesian authorities to establish the truth about crimes that were committed in the past.

They want to know what happened to their loved ones. Presuming that they have been killed, they want to know why, and where their bodies are.

A former head of a victims’ association in Aceh poignantly told us about the disappearance of his brother and how difficult he finds it not knowing where he was buried: “One of my brothers became a victim of enforced disappearance … Until now we don’t know where his grave is … My nephew, his child … when he returns home for Lebaran he says, ‘let’s go to the grave of my father’ … How can I explain that there is no grave, no grave?”

Some have dared to hope that if only the truth could be established, it would be a vitally important first step to challenge the climate of impunity, and lead towards justice and reparations.

More than that, it is important for the nation as a whole to know and understand what happened in the past, so that history does not repeat itself. With understanding and justice can come healing.

So Amnesty International continues to call on Indonesia to enact a national truth and reconciliation law. Although there have been numerous commitments to establish a truth commission – both at the national level and in Aceh and Papua – the government is stalling, failing to take the necessary steps.

It is time to end that, and to give victims access to the truth about the serious human rights violations of the past.

Of course, truth commissions are no substitute for the courts. They should be no bar to criminal justice of reparation. There should be no immunity from prosecution, no attempt to shield the perpetrators of crimes. Rather than a substitute for justice, a truth commission must be a step on the path to justice.

Justice in the present

Third, a reckoning with the past and a stronger future cannot be achieved while impunity continues in the present. There must be accountability for current human rights violations also.

During the first decade of the Reformasi era after the fall of Suharto, significant steps were taken to reform the security services of Indonesia, especially the national police and the military forces.

The government put in place legislative and structural reforms to strengthen the compliance of the security forces with human rights values and standards when performing their duties.

The police and military have organised human rights training, and introduced internal regulations to be sure that international human rights standards are upheld.

But despite this, there are still reports of serious human rights violations by the security forces – including unlawful killing, the unnecessary or excessive use of force, and torture during arrest, interrogation and detention.

The situation is made worse by the absence of any independent, effective and impartial complaints mechanism which can deal with public complaints about misconduct by security forces – including serious human rights violations.

Although the government has made some attempts to hold those responsible to account, criminal investigations into human rights violations by the security services are all too rare. This leaves victims today, as in the past, without any access to justice or reparation.

It is time for the Indonesian authorities to ensure prompt, thorough and effective investigations into current abuses, to build a real foundation of accountability. That needs to cover not only the immediate perpetrators but also those with command responsibility.

Protecting those who defend human rights

Fourth, Indonesia needs to ensure that those who defend human rights are able to do that without fear.

The country has a strong constitution which protects freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Yet, human rights defenders following in the steps of Munir, and journalists in places like Papua, face attacks, intimidation and criminalisation for their peaceful work to defend the rights of others. That creates a climate where people fear speaking up. It stifles debate and reduces the prospect of accountability. It is time to end that and to ensure freedom for those who speak out.

Ending the death penalty

Fifth, it is time to end the death penalty in Indonesia.

There have been 18 executions under President Jokowi’s administration since January 2015. Meanwhile, in 15 years of democratic rule between 1998 and 2014 under previous administrations, only 27 executions were committed.

This is a sad regression. Executions had been put on hold in previous years, and the government proactively took measures to prevent the executions of Indonesians abroad – those interventions led to 240 death sentences being commuted between 2011 and 2014.

The case for the death penalty is not strong. There is no conclusive evidence that it has a unique deterrent effect. Statistics from countries that have already abolished show that its absence has not led to an increase in crimes which previously were subject to death.

And of course it is brutally final. When executions happen after unfair trials, there is no way back.

A country which is moving towards accountability cannot also be moving backwards on the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment. The global trajectory against the death penalty is clear. Indonesia remains part of an increasingly small and isolated cluster of countries which still uses the death penalty – and increasingly so. We have a clear message to Indonesia: do not be on the wrong side of history.

Amnesty in Indonesia

So I have suggested five ways in which Indonesia can move build a stronger future rooted in justice.

But above all the hope comes from the people of Indonesia. This country has a history of resistance of which you can be extremely proud – there is a huge network of brave organisations and individuals, an ecosystem of people power ready to defend human rights across this huge archipelago, including in its most neglected regions.

Lawyers such as Yap Thiam Hien were fundamental to the struggles for justice and dignity since Indonesian independence, and the country has many others carrying the baton now. I am sure many of you are here. You will seek justice for victims of grave human rights abuses, for domestic workers, for torture victims, for prisoners of conscience.

And it is Amnesty’s privilege to be joining you more closely in your struggle for justice. We are establishing an office here to be part of the story of change, to lend what we can to do the growing and vital movement of people that will work for accountability and contribute to the stronger future for all Indonesian people that we seek.

Amnesty is a global movement of more than seven million people who stand up and take injustice personally.

As I conclude, let me say that I hope we will join hands together in the struggle for justice and accountability. That will be how we can truly honour the memory of Yap Thiam Hien.

I thank you.

Salil Shetty

A long-term activist on poverty and justice, Salil Shetty leads the movement's worldwide work to end human rights violations and has spearheaded a significant move of Amnesty International's work to the global south.