Jokowi’s unlikely promise: settling past human rights abuses

Lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis at the International People's Tribunal. Photo by the International People’s Tribunal 1965.
Attempts to highlight the role of the Indonesian state in gross violations of human rights committed in 1965, such as the International People’s Tribunal, above, have been dismissed by senior government officials. Photo by the International People’s Tribunal 1965.

 

 

In January, President Joko Widodo twice instructed officials to resolve past violations of human rights within the year. Given past events, it is hard to respond to this “good” news with anything but scepticism. We don’t know exactly what Jokowi had in mind when he ordered the Attorney General’s Office to resolve past abuses, but given the complexity of the issues, one year is not long enough to reach a solution that will satisfy all parties.

 

Several conditions must be met if any proposal to resolve past human rights violations is to be successful. The first is a clear definition of what settling these cases might entail. Unfortunately, Jokowi’s order was delivered without any clarity over the concept of settlement: will it mean prosecution of perpetrators in the courts, or non-judicial reconciliation? As usual, Jokowi left it up to officials to interpret his instruction. This lack of direction is particularly concerning given that the lead agency, the Attorney General’s Office, has consistently attempted to thwart efforts at prosecution of past human rights abuses.

 

In fact, the prosecutor’s office has been the main impediment in bringing human rights abuses to trial for more than a decade. For example, it rejected an investigative report on the 1965 massacres prepared by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), claiming that there was insufficient evidence to act. This continued in May 2015, when Jokowi formed a Reconciliation Committee to resolve past violations of human rights. Under the leadership of Muhammad Prasetyo, the AGO again said it would prioritise a non-judicial process rather than take the cases to court.

 

Disappointingly, Komnas HAM appears to have resigned itself to this impasse. In May 2015 it joined the Reconciliation Committee uncritically and without a clear position on reconciliation. It was subsequently lambasted by human rights activists, who urged it to commit to its mandate under the 2000 Law on the Human Rights Court. If Jokowi’s understanding of resolution involves prosecuting perpetrators, then he should spell this out, and order the AGO to follow up on Komnas HAM’s investigation.

 

The next matter relates to who should lead this reconciliation process. Many people would no doubt assume that such a process should be led by ministers or law enforcement officials. But many of the gross violations of human rights that have occurred in Indonesia involved military perpetrators who are close to people in power. While politicians (including Jokowi) are often happy to campaign on human rights issues, political considerations too often get in the way of effective action once they win office.

 

If Jokowi is serious about realising his promise, he should lead the process himself. He could establish an independent and credible Presidential Committee, comprised of experts and statesmen who could oversee the AGO’s work and coordinate all responsible agencies, placing law enforcement bodies and other state institutions within their mandate. This is the option proposed by human rights groups, such as the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS) and the Coalition for Justice and Truth (KKPK).

 

Part of the problem comes back to Jokowi himself. The cases of the disappearance of activists in 1997-1998 have long been on hold, awaiting a presidential decree on the establishment of an ad-hoc human rights court. The legislature sent four recommendations to former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009, including one on the formation of such a court, but no action was taken. If Jokowi wishes to avoid Yudhoyono’s failures in this field, he should produce a decree as soon as possible. This is not without risk, however, as it will involve prosecuting his former presidential rival, Prabowo Subianto. He has little choice, however. If he does not do so, he will be contributing to the culture of impunity that has plagued the country for so long.

 

A further important condition for effective resolution of past abuses is active and meaningful public participation, especially by victims groups. Last year the AGO closed the door on civil society and victim involvement in the settlement process. It claimed that Komnas HAM represented the needs and aspirations of victims and their relatives and that was enough. This lack of transparency and public participation completely undermines the reconciliation process and virtually guarantees that any settlement reached will not be satisfactory for victims.

 

Finally, effective settlement of gross human rights violations will require concurrent efforts to strengthen public awareness. One of the most important outcomes of any reconciliation process is building a new tradition of respect for human rights and ending impunity. This will help to ensure that the process carries weight for the younger generation, who may not have learned about the mistakes of the past. Only through this broader process will we be able to achieve justice for the victims and meaningful reconciliation for the nation.

 

So will Jokowi’s instructions to his senior officials to resolve past human rights violations lead to lasting change? Or will they just result in another round of denials and unfulfilled promises? It all depends on Jokowi meeting these conditions, and the signs so far do not look good at all.