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The politics of compromise

Published: Jan 27, 2016

Ken Setiawan

Hopes were high when Joko Widodo or Jokowi, was elected. Many believed that a president without ties to military, political and business elites could make a substantial contribution to improving the country’s human rights record – not least through addressing the human rights violations of the past.

The hopes held for the Jokowi leadership were not based on thin air. During his presidential campaign, he reached out to human rights activists and the victims of human rights violations. Human rights issues featured prominently in the Nawa Cita, a nine-point agenda put forward by Jokowi and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla. Its fourth priority, on law enforcement, stated that ‘the just finalisation of past human rights violations’ were of utmost importance, as they represented a ‘social and political burden’ on the country. It also identified a number of cases to be addressed under the Jokowi government. These included the 1965 massacres; Talangsari; Tanjung Priok; the disappearances of activists in 1997-98; the May 1998 riots and the shootings at Trisakti and Semanggi.

Human rights activists believed that the Jokowi administration would bring these cases to ad hoc human rights courts, but their hopes were dashed in May 2015 when the government announced the establishment of a Reconciliation Committee instead. 

Frustrated hopes

The Reconciliation Committee is not the first attempt to address past human rights violations in Indonesia. A law passed in 2004 to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was promptly revoked by the Constitutional Court. An earlier law on human rights courts remains on the books, but has proven to be ineffective in addressing past human rights violations. 

One of the main stumbling blocks has been the stance taken by the Attorney General’s Office, which has repeatedly refused to act on preliminary investigations by the National Commission on Human Rights. This obstructive behaviour has been agonising for victims’ relatives, who have recently petitioned the Constitutional Court on the matter. 

The establishment of the Reconciliation Committee is a response to the failure of these mechanisms. It is led by Attorney General Prasetyo, whose support for the initiative is unsurprising, given that his office has effectively prevented cases of human rights violations from making it to court. 

According to Prasetyo, a non-judicial approach is the most practical option, since it is difficult to collect evidence in old cases. Following this line of reasoning, the possibilities for a legal process are limited and are likely to lead to what he calls a ‘sub-optimal outcome’. Thus, for him at least, reconciliation is a better choice.

Avoiding responsibility

More than six months later , the government had issued no further information regarding the Reconciliation Committee’s formal mandate, except that it will be directly responsible to the president. In addition, human rights NGOs have been very critical of the composition of the Committee, which is dominated by representatives of the Coordinating Ministry of Politics, Law and Security, the National Police, the Military and the State Intelligence Agency. These bodies have all been involved in human rights violations, so there are serious doubts to what extent the Committee will address their complicity in the cases that it proposes to examine. 

There is evidence of a lack of political will that backs up this assessment. At the time of the Committee’s establishment, it was proposed that the president would express regret and offer an apology to victims of gross violations of human rights and their families. There were strong rumours that the first of these apologies would be offered this year, the 50th anniversary of the 1965 massacres. But senior government officials were quick to quash this speculation. Vice-President Jusuf Kalla observed that an apology was problematic. Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said that it was unnecessary. There are also reports that progress on the Committee has stalled following the appointment of Luhut Panjaitan as Coordinating Minister of Politics, Law and Security. 

Since truth-seeking would be an unlikely priority for a state-led committee in which the military and the intelligence services have been given such a prominent role, its establishment appears to be yet another attempt by the state to absolve itself of its obligations to investigate past abuses. These suspicions were confirmed when –following strong pressure from the Islamic mass organisations Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah – Jokowi confirmed that that the government had no intention of offering an apology. In short, while the political elite was prepared to come out in support of reconciliation, it has no appetite for an apology, which would require both documentation and acknowledgment of what happened in the past and identification of who should be held responsible. 

This watered-down approach is in direct contradiction with the decades-long efforts of human rights activists and the attempts by the National Commission on Human Rights to bring these cases to court.  For victims and their families, the lack of representation on the Committee is particularly disappointing. To many of them, the approach taken to reconciliation illustrates that the government is unwilling to acknowledge past wrongs, once again denying victims and survivors justice. Many activists thus claim that the Commission is a diversion only serving government interests, and that the state should have focused on strengthening existing mechanisms. 

Well-intentioned but weak

The establishment of the Reconciliation Committee is likely to have been influenced by Jokowi’s presence and the human rights agenda put forward during his campaign. In the 2015 State of the Nation address, Jokowi once again argued that past human rights violations must be addressed so that ‘generations of the future are not burdened by the past’. However, Jokowi commands little authority, even in his own party, and key power brokers are unresponsive – even hostile – towards human rights.

The political discourse surrounding this committee and the rejection of state apologies shows how fraught it will be to address past human rights violations during the Jokowi presidency. Jokowi’s human rights agenda was always going to be challenging to fulfil, but it has proven near impossible given his limited political leverage and the presence of military hardliners in his cabinet. In such an environment, any progress is ultimately likely to be compromised, and the Reconciliation Committee is an example of that. 

Ken Setiawan (setiawan.k@unimelb.edu.au) is a McKenzie Research Fellow at the Asia Institute, the University of Melbourne.  


Inside Indonesia 123: Jan-Mar 2016{jcomments on}

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