Indonesia’s Attempt to Address Past Human Rights Abuses Risks Perpetuating Impunity

Indonesia’s Attempt to Address Past Human Rights Abuses Risks Perpetuating Impunity.lelemuku.com.jpg

JAKARTA, LELEMUKU.COM - Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has set up a team to establish the truth about gross human rights abuses from Indonesia’s past, but activists warn it could perpetuate impunity because the body has no power to bring perpetrators to justice.  

Jokowi announced this week that he had signed a decree to establish the team and that a bill on a truth and reconciliation commission was being deliberated at the national legislature.  

“I have signed a presidential decree on the formation of the Team for Non-Judicial Settlement of Past Gross Human Rights Violations,” the president said during his State of the Nation speech to parliament on Tuesday, the eve of Indonesia’s 77th anniversary of independence.

Jokowi said his administration was serious about resolving rights abuse cases.

Parliament is deliberating a bill on a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission for Indonesia, he said.

Southeast Asia’s largest and most populous nation has a long and well documented history of alleged human rights abuses, particularly those which occurred under past military-dominated regimes and in 1965-66, when hundreds of thousands of people were believed to be killed during a counter-communist purge.

The mass killings from that time remain a sensitive topic in Indonesia, with successive governments showing a reluctance to bring about a public reckoning with that dark episode from decades ago, as human rights advocates have called for.  

BenarNews saw a copy of the presidential decree instituting the creation of the new body.

The decree does not specify a time frame but it said it was based on recommendations made in 2020 by the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), a state agency, that urged the government to look at cases dating back to as early as the mid-1960s.

Observers are casting doubt that the non-judicial body, which has no punitive powers, can confront past human rights abuses effectively and seriously.

“The team seems to be designed to settle cases of human rights violations by providing compensation for victims only,” ​​said Wahyudi Djafar, executive director for the Institute for Public Studies and Advocacy (Elsam).

“This could be a recipe for more human rights violations,” he told BenarNews.

Victims of rights violations deserve justice and accountability through a human rights court, he said.

The National Commission on Human Rights said cases that qualify as gross human rights violations include the anti-communist purge following a failed coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965, the forced disappearance of activists in the dying days of the Suharto regime in 1998 and the killings by security forces of four high school student protesters in 2014.

The country’s long-time dictator, Suharto, came to power in 1967 when he took over from Sukarno, the country’s founding president, after mass killings targeting suspected communists. Suharto resigned in 1998 amid political and economic upheaval.

Hendardi, the director of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, accused the government of trying to whitewash past abuses instead of bringing perpetrators to justice.

“Instead of collecting facts and information to accelerate a judicial mechanism mandated by the law on the human rights court, Jokowi has actually shut down the victims’ hopes for truth and justice,” he said in a statement.

The Civil Society Coalition, an alliance of rights abuse victims and activists, urged Jokowi to repeal the decree, warning that it would only “strengthen impunity” because there would be no accountability for perpetrators.

The coalition called on Jokowi to order “transparent and accountable investigations of gross human rights violations,” and for parliament to recommend the establishment of an ad-hoc human rights court to try the cases.

Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said the team would be led by credible figures including veteran Indonesian diplomat Makarim Wibisono and Marzuki Darusman, who chaired a United Nations fact‑finding mission on Myanmar.

“The judicial route will continue. In accordance with legislation, the settlement of past human rights violations must be taken in two parallel ways, through judicial and non-judicial processes,” Mahfud MD said.

A member of Komnas HAM, Beka Ulung Hapsara, said the non-judicial process was intended to establish the truth, reconciliation and compensation for victims.

“I think the activists’ doubts are justified. It is up to the government to prove it with concrete steps, including maximizing the available judicial mechanisms,” he said.

Makarim, a former Indonesian ambassador to the U.N. who will chair the team, said he had not received the decree yet and declined to comment.

Papua: A hotbed of abuses

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch this week urged Indonesian authorities to drop what it called politically motivated treason charges against activists in Papua, Indonesia’s troubled far-eastern region where violence linked to the separatist insurgency has been on the rise.

The group accused Indonesian authorities of intimidation, arbitrary arrests, torture, extra-judicial killings and mass forced displacement in Papua.

“Indonesian security forces for decades have routinely subjected Indigenous Papuans to wrongful arrests and violence, and yet were never brought to justice for these rights violations,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“The Indonesian government should stop harassing and arresting peaceful Papuan protesters, and immediately release activists prosecuted for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” it said.

Theofransus Litaay, a member of the presidential office staff, said the welfare of Papuans would “always be our top priority.”

“The government of Indonesia has made clear on numerous occasions that the use of excessive force, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture have no place in our society,” he told BenarNews.

The government has made efforts to address alleged rights abuse cases “according to applicable laws, emphasizing victims’ justice and ending impunity,” he said.

“Many innocent civilians, including health workers and construction workers, have fallen victims to threats and violence by the armed criminal groups,” he said, referring to separatist fighters.

“This security situation warrants the deployment of security forces to secure and defend the people.”

Last month, a report from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, based in Washington, warned that mass killings of civilians could occur in the Papua region in the next year to 18 months if current conditions deteriorate to a worst-case scenario.

A combination of factors – increasing rebel attacks, better coordination and organization of pro-independence civilian groups and ease of communication – makes it plausible that the unrest could reach a new level in the next 12 to 18 months, the report said.

The risks are rooted in factors such as past mass atrocities in Indonesia, the exclusion of indigenous Papuans from political decision-making, Jakarta’s failure to address their grievances and conflicts over the exploitation of the region’s resources, according to the report.

Other factors include Papuans’ resentment over Jakarta’s failure to hold accountable security personnel implicated in human rights abuses, it said.

Papua, on the western side of New Guinea Island, was incorporated into Indonesia in a United Nations-administered ballot in the late 1960s.

In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded Papua – like Indonesia, a former Dutch colony – and annexed the region.

Only about 1,000 people voted in the U.N.-sponsored referendum in 1969 that locals and activists said was a sham, but the United Nations accepted the result, essentially endorsing Jakarta’s rule. (Nazarudin Latif / Dandy Koswaraputra | BenarNews)

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