Komnas HAM: not just ineffective but corrupt as well?

Author

Dr Ken Setiawan is a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne's Asia Institute.

Komnas HAM's attempts to depict the issue as a matter that can be investigated and resolved internally has upset fellow human rights and anti-corruption activists. Photo by Komnas HAM.
Komnas HAM’s attempts to depict the alleged misappropriation of funds as a matter that can be investigated and resolved internally has upset fellow human rights and anti-corruption activists. Photo by Komnas HAM.

 

Last week, the Supreme Audit Agency (BPK) confirmed strong suspicions long held by the Indonesian human rights community. It published a report revealing that members of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) have been embezzling public funds. According to the BPK report, Komnas HAM wrongly claimed more than Rp 6 billion (about AU$604,000). This figure included about Rp 820 million for activities that never took place, nearly Rp 1.02 billion dispensed without receipts, and Rp 330 million for the deputy head’s official residence – which he never occupied, instead directing the Commission’s funds, via the owner of the home, to his bank account.

 

Komnas HAM formally suspended deputy head Dianto Bachriadi from his duties in September – before the BPK report was made public. Since the release of the report, Komnas HAM has responded by starting to return the funds and establishing two internal mechanisms to investigate the misappropriation of funds by commissioners and by staff members. Komnas HAM chair M. Imdadun Rahmat has said he does not believe Dianto’s case needs to be taken to court, and as long as he returns the funds.

 

Komnas HAM’s attempts to depict the issue as a matter that can be investigated and resolved internally has prompted a furious response from fellow human rights and anti-corruption activists. A group of concerned Komnas HAM employees, Gerakan Peduli Komnas HAM (the Concern for Komnas HAM Movement), said that the BPK report undermines the Commission’s credibility as a strong and independent state body and that those responsible should be held to account in a legal process. A leading local nongovernmental organisation, KontraS, concurred, demanding that commissioners involved in embezzlement be immediately removed from their positions.

 

Over the years, Komnas HAM – an independent advisory state organisation established in 1993 – has come under increasing criticism because of its inability to make a substantial contribution to the implementation of human rights in Indonesia. While this situation is, to a large extent, a consequence of the stagnation of human rights reform, several factors within Komnas HAM have also played a role. A number of these are fundamental issues related to the implementation of the 1999 Human Rights Law, which included a specific chapter on the Commission.

 

First, the 1999 Human Rights Law has contributed to the politicisation of Komnas HAM because, according to the provisions in the law, commissioners are selected by a legislative committee. This procedure was intended to increase transparency and allow the representatives of the people to select new members, in line with international recommendations on national human rights institutions, the larger body of organisations to which Komnas HAM belongs. But in practice the selection of new commissioners has been subject to political power plays.

 

While this has certainly not prevented the legislature from electing some commissioners with extensive experience in human rights, in other cases it has led to the appointment of commissioners directly linked to certain interest groups, including retired security officers as well as members of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI). In some cases, this has led to the inadequate investigation of certain issues, including cases of past human rights abuses in which the security forces were involved, as well as the persecution of members of Ahmadiyah (a minority sect that identifies as Muslim but is considered “deviant” by most orthodox Sunni Muslims). Investigation of an attack on an Ahmadiyah community was halted because of strong opposition from one commissioner, who at the time was vice chair of the MUI. Unsurprisingly, this has damaged Komnas HAM’s public legitimacy, which is crucial for an advisory body that depends on moral authority, rather than enforcement powers, for its recommendations to be followed.

 

Second, the Human Rights Law stipulates that a public servant should hold the secretary general position. At the time this was decided, it was highly contentious within Komnas HAM, with those in support of the arrangement arguing that it would relieve commissioners of administrative duties, while those who opposed the change feared it would open the Commission to “money politics”.

 

As it turns out, those fears were justified. Since 2002, successive Komnas HAM secretaries general have set in motion a process that, within Komnas HAM, has been referred to as “PNSisasi” (“civil-servant-isation”). All existing staff were asked to join the civil service, and any new support staff were recruited from the bureaucracy. While many opted to become civil servants, quite a few decided to leave the Commission on principle. One of those who left in protest told me: “First they ask us to become a civil servant, what’s next? Maybe they will ask us to wear uniforms just like at other government departments. How will that look like in the eyes of people who bring their cases to us?”

 

The appointment of public servants to a human rights commission will not automatically influence such an organisation negatively. In the case of Komnas HAM, however, this bureaucratisation process has been problematic. It is a concern not just because of the legacy authoritarianism in Indonesia, where state bodies have long systematically violated human rights, and not simply because of the limited knowledge of human rights among civil servants (an obstacle Komnas HAM attempts to overcome by providing new staff members with human rights training). Rather, the primary concern is because of the high occurrence of corruption within the Indonesian bureaucracy. According to Febri Hendri of Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), the manner in which embezzlement has taken place within Komnas HAM reflects broader practices with the Indonesian bureaucracy.

 

The alleged misappropriation of public funds by Komnas HAM officials is another blow to the legitimacy of an organisation that is already in trouble. With less than a year remaining of the tenure of the current commissioners, the question arises as to how the newly announced committee in charge of selecting candidates to be vetted by the legislature will respond to these developments. It is reassuring, perhaps, that the selection committee includes a widely respected former member of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), Bambang Widjojanto. Unfortunately, that is probably not enough. It seems clear that the scourge of corruption in Komnas HAM will not be solved by the appointment of new members alone.