UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged Indonesians to move forward, not backwards, on human rights. UN photo by Jean Marc Ferré.


United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein concluded a three-day visit to Indonesia last week with some blunt words about plans to revise the Criminal Code (KUHP), as well as concerns about the country’s record in Papua, religious intolerance and past violations of human rights.


This is not the first time that Indonesia has hosted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Hussein’s predecessors, including Navi Pillay, Louise Arbour, Mary Robinson and Jose Ayala-Lasso, have made similar visits. But what do these visits by senior UN officials mean? Do they ever lead to improvements in the implementation of human rights on the ground?


First, it is important to recognise that this was not a formal monitoring visit or assessment. Hussein visited on the invitation of the Indonesian government. The visit was framed as one to assist Indonesia to strengthen the implementation of its rights obligations.


The position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was only created in late 1993 and it is still largely diplomatic – its mandate involves engaging in dialogue with UN member states, encouraging them to ratify human rights agreements, and providing technical and financial assistance. It also has a bureaucratic function, strengthening coordination of human rights throughout the UN, and a public voice, speaking out against violations.


The UN human rights system has other mechanisms for assessing member states’ compliance with their human rights obligations, such as the Universal Periodic Review process of the UN Human Rights Council, a process to which Indonesia was subjected in May 2017. The UN also has 10 treaty bodies that monitor implementation of the main human rights treaties, such as the Human Rights Committee, which reviews countries’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Commissioner is just one part of a much larger UN human rights bureaucracy.


Hussein won an audience with President Joko Widodo, an invitation that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did not extend to Hussein’s predecessor, Navi Pillay, when she visited in 2012. Hussein also met with ministers including Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), victims of rights abuses, civil society representatives and religious leaders.


The fact that Indonesia made time for a raft of senior officials to meet with Hussein is an indication that the government takes its rights obligations seriously – or at least wants to project the image that it does. Indonesia considers itself one of the last bastions of democratic values in the region – although many international observers would probably dispute this assessment, following the jailing of former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama on dubious blasphemy charges, the caning of two gay men in Aceh, and the recent public humiliation of transgender women in the same province.


Indonesia also invited the UN to conduct a formal visit to Papua, suggesting it is conscious of its poor rights record in the region. (Not detaining foreign journalists over a couple of tweets would go some way to improving its reputation in this area as well).


Indonesia may have been keen to win approval from Hussein, but he spoke firmly and was much more direct in his criticism than Pillay in 2012. His comments on the planned revisions to the KUHP were particularly scathing and are worth repeating in some detail:


These discussions betray strains of intolerance seemingly alien to Indonesian culture that have made inroads here. The extremist views playing out in the political arena are deeply worrying, accompanied as they are by rising levels of incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence in various parts of the country, including Aceh.


At a time when it is consolidating its democratic gains, we urge Indonesians to move forward – not backwards – on human rights and resist attempts to introduce new forms of discrimination in law. Because these proposed amendments will in effect criminalise large sections of the poor and marginalised, they are inherently discriminatory. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Indonesians already face increasing stigma, threats and intimidation. The hateful rhetoric against this community that is being cultivated seemingly for cynical political purposes will only deepen their suffering and create unnecessary divisions.


If we expect not to be discriminated against on the basis of our religious beliefs, colour, race or gender, if Muslim societies expect others to fight against Islamophobia, we should be prepared to end discrimination at home too. Islamophobia is wrong. Discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs and colour is wrong. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or any other status is wrong.


Are these comments likely to have any impact? The significance of this criticism is that it is coming from an independent voice of high moral standing. Hussein’s message of the universality of human rights is also critical at a time when legislators drawing up revisions to the KUHP argue that rights should be culturally specific, referring to “Indonesian human rights” or “Pancasila human rights” in a way that evokes memories of Soeharto-era “Asian values”.


Unfortunately, the likelihood of Hussein’s criticism leading to changes on the ground is slim. Although the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights seeks to advance protection of human rights in member states, it must be acknowledged that its record on this front is poor. After all, even the intervention of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon did not save Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran from execution.


Given the number of times UN bodies have criticised Indonesia’s Blasphemy Law (Law No. 1/PNPS/1965) without any effect, you do have to question whether Indonesian engagement in the UN rights process (including visits by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights) is anything but window dressing – particularly when it seems the government has little intention of taking meaningful action to strengthen protection of human rights.


The High Commissioner for Human Rights occupies a difficult position. While he or she must call out violations when they occur, countries are unlikely to respond constructively if they feel they are being judged. Success will involve motivating countries to change their behaviour – naming and shaming may provoke change, but it could just as easily lead to a country digging in.


Hussein’s firm words on the planned revisions were an important reminder that Indonesia may become an international pariah if the most offensive provisions in the revised criminal code are passed. But whether the legislators drawing up the revised criminal code will hear these concerns – or care about them – is another matter.


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