Last week, Indonesia had its human rights record reviewed for the third time at the United Nations Human Rights Council, through the Universal Periodic Review process. The Indonesian government undeniably cares about its human rights image. It sent a large delegation to Geneva, led by two senior ministers: Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi and Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly. They faced a barrage of criticism, over the country’s use of the death penalty, religious extremism, rising intolerance and discrimination towards minority groups, justice for past human rights abuses, as well as rights violations in Papua.
The UPR is held once every 4.5 years, and provides an opportunity the state under review to report on efforts it has taken to improve its human rights situation. National reports are complemented by a report prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights as well as information from external stakeholders, including nongovernmental organisations and national human rights institutions – like the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM). Other member states are provided with the opportunity to question and comment on national reports and the claims of progress made. The process ultimately aims to enhance state capacity to promote and protect human rights.
In the 2017 review, on 3 May, Indonesia received 225 comments and recommendations from more than 100 states, a high number compared to other states under review. But it wasn’t all bad news. Indonesia was commended for its adoption of the 2015-2019 National Action Plan on Human Rights, reforms to the juvenile justice system, the significant budget allocation to education and efforts to strengthen the rights of people with disability.
So far, Indonesia has responded positively, accepting 150 of the recommendations. It said it would continue to review the remaining 75, and provide a response at the September meeting of the UNHRC. Minister Retno noted that Indonesia was committed to the process and that human rights were “part of our [Indonesia’s] DNA”. Her colleague, Yasonna, added that while Indonesia’s human rights achievements were “not perfect, they [were] continually progressing”. Similarly, Hasan Kleib, Indonesia’s permanent representative to the UN, said that Indonesia had a “solid commitment and political will to make changes for the better”.
While human rights groups have expressed appreciation for Indonesia’s active engagement in the UPR process, concerns remain. The Indonesian delegation underlined its achievements in terms of legal reform and institutions, including its ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, the establishment of various independent state bodies with human rights mandates, and Indonesia’s leading role at the regional level, particularly in the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). But while Indonesia’s “on-paper” human rights record may be relatively strong, its defence of the protection and promotion of human rights was far less convincing.
Predictably, Indonesia defended the death penalty as an important component of its efforts to address drug crime, with Yasonna restating dubious figures to justify the practice, claiming that each day 33 persons die of drug abuse. Allegations of growing intolerance and religious extremism were largely dismissed. The government argued that both the 2014 presidential elections and the recent Jakarta gubernatorial elections were free and fair, and conducted in an inclusive and peaceful manner. These claims stand in sharp contrast with the widespread hate speech that characterised both elections, and particularly the gubernatorial race in Jakarta, which have been widely documented.
In response to the numerous concerns over rights violations in Papua, Retno unsurprisingly asserted that the provinces were an “integral part of the Republic of Indonesia”. She underlined the government’s investment in the area while dismissing the majority of claims of human rights violations as “purely criminal acts”. Meanwhile, speaking on the issue of justice for past violations, Yasonna commented that they would be settled through a “non-judicial body to ensure a lasting resolution of these cases”. Indonesia chose not to respond to the many countries that urged greater protection for sexual minorities. Despite ignoring valid criticism in this way, on the whole, the delegation put considerable effort into responding to and mitigating other countries’ concerns.
The Indonesian response illustrated that human rights promotion and protection is primarily understood through formal mechanisms. This reflects the pattern of human rights reform in the post-authoritarian era, which has been characterised by a gap between legal guarantees and actual practice. Similarly, the discourse used by the government shows Indonesia’s increasing engagement with the international human rights framework and international concerns – such as justice for past human rights violations. At the same time, however, it has asserted its supposed uniqueness by seeking a non-judicial approach, and arguing that some recommendations reflected a “lack of understanding of the context”.
This balancing act between international concerns and national priorities was also evident in Indonesia’s defence of the death penalty, in which it noted the “ongoing public debate” on the issue, perhaps hinting at President Joko Widodo’s comments that he would reinstate a moratorium on capital punishment if the majority of the population were in support. The manner in which Indonesia has positioned itself illustrates that despite Indonesia’s active participation in this international process, it intends to remain fully in charge of the trajectory and pace of human rights reform.
Indonesia’s determination to promote and protect human rights on its own terms raises questions about the value of the UPR. Does the process ever lead to an improved human rights situation on the ground? One of the main criticisms of the UPR process is that the recommendations are non-binding: the state under review has the responsibility to implement them. At the same time, this may also be its strength – it facilitates dialogue on human rights between states and stakeholders at home, such as civil society organisations and Komnas HAM. According to Hasan, Komnas HAM had “effectively and constructively engaged” with the UPR process and would have a “strategic contribution in the follow up [of the recommendations]”.
Indonesia’s active participation presents an opportunity for civil society. The criticism raised by other states on the international stage may legitimise the concerns that have long been made by local organisations. The UPR process also provides a framework for civil society organisations to monitor the state’s commitments, which will continue to inform their activities and may in time lead to stronger human rights protections.
Despite the flaws of the UPR process, it remains valuable. Yes, the UPR is unlikely to directly influence Indonesia’s human rights record in the short term, but it may well contribute to change in the future.