6 April 2018
Agantaranansa Juanda speaks to Jason Naselli about the promises the government has made and the steps that still need to be taken for the country to deliver justice for past violations of human rights.
Agantaranansa Juanda

Agantaranansa Juanda

Academy Fellow, International Law Programme


Indonesian PM Joko Widodo. Photo: Getty Images.
Indonesian PM Joko Widodo. Photo: Getty Images.


Does the Indonesian government adequately protect human rights?

It does and it does not; it really depends on the context. Indonesia looks good among its neighbours in Southeast Asia in terms of protection of civil and political rights, and to some extent economic, social and cultural rights, although room for improvements exists.

But one of the promises of the current president, Joko Widodo, during his 2014 campaign was about international criminal justice, which involves rights for many victims of past cases of human rights abuses in Indonesia. In that sense, it does not protect these rights, including the rights to justice, truth, reparations or guarantees of non-recurrence.

For example, in the case of the conflict over independence for East Timor in 1999, there were many gross violations of human rights. However, there has never been any sort of effective judicial process to address gross violations of human rights, and crimes against humanity in particular.

In 1965–66, during the government’s violent anti-communist operations, 500,000 people or more were killed. Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights was tasked with conducting an investigation into this period within its limited mandate, but it led to nothing; there have never been any prosecutions relating to these crimes.

The election promise of the current president was to deal with a number of these past human rights cases, and this promise has not been met at all. His opponent in 2014, Prabowo Subianto, was a former military general involved in alleged past human rights abuses, so it was politically expedient to make such a promise. But it has not been pursued in office.

In 2000, Indonesia established its own Human Rights Court. What is your assessment of its record?

Some human rights activists suggested that the establishment of the Human Rights Court took place under international pressure following the independence of East Timor. To avoid international scrutiny, for example the creation of an ad hoc international tribunal, the government established this court.

Based on the report of the International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor in 2000, it was indeed recommended that an international human rights tribunal be set up. Indonesian government rejected the proposal with strong assurances that it would provide justice for atrocities committed by its nationals. So it is fair for some to see the establishment of Indonesia’s Human Rights Court as a political move by the government at that time, in order to avoid scrutiny by the international community.

When it comes to performance, the Human Rights Court actually investigated and prosecuted cases relating to atrocities in East Timor. There were around 100 suspects identified, and 18 were put on trial. Out of these 18, only one trial, of Eurico Guterres, ended in a conviction for crimes against humanity. However, the Indonesian Supreme Court cleared Guterres of all charges in 2008. So the Human Rights Court did take steps, but the net result amounted to essentially nothing. Impunity remains.

So it has not lived up to its mandate, but there is another factor, which is that the founding law of the Human Rights Court does not accommodate international standards of criminal justice. It only covers two of the four categories of crime as outlined in the Rome Statute – crimes against humanity and genocide. It also does not provide adequate protection for victims and witnesses. So there are issues not only with the performance of the Human Rights Court but also with the legislation establishing it.

Why hasn’t Indonesia become a party to the Rome Statute to join the ICC?

The main opposition came from the military, because they were afraid of being targeted by the ICC. There was also a lot of discussion about Indonesia’s ‘sovereign right to prosecute’.

But what those opposing failed to understand is that the ICC is bound by temporal and territorial boundaries, meaning that it will not intervene if the state in question is able and willing to prosecute. So I think accession to the Rome Statute has not taken place because of this misunderstanding.

I think another factor since this was initially raised is there is a focus on other issues. Indonesia is an emerging country economically; there is a focus on building infrastructure. So many in government feel like they are done with the past. But for the millions of victims of past crimes and their families, the past is not done.

So it’s very important at this point in the country’s history to revisit the commitment to international criminal justice to be able to contribute to sustainable peace and development.

What steps could the Indonesian government take to improve how it handles these issues?

The establishment of the Human Rights Court was an important starting point, but clearly there has to be significant reform, both in terms of the substantive law underpinning it and its procedures.

Clearly the domestic laws need to be reformed, but also, an effort needs to be made to improve the courts capacity in terms of manpower and logistical support. This is why the government needs to restart the discussion about becoming a party to the Rome Statute. Through the outreach programme of the ICC, this would give the Human Rights Court the capacity, in terms of manpower and logistical support, to tackle past human rights violations in Indonesia, which the Human Rights Court is currently lacking.

Only if these two steps are taken – reforming the domestic Human Rights Court and restarting discussion about becoming a party to the Rome Statute – will the Indonesian government be able to say it has made progress on international criminal justice.

The Indonesian government is actually running for a seat on the UN Security Council for the period of 2019–20. So I think it is an urgent discussion that the Indonesian government needs to have before it makes another pledge to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security. It is difficult to have sustainable peace without justice.