12-5-2011By Quinn O'Keefe
Human Rights Defenders Program
If you had any doubts that Indonesia is becoming a regional heavyweight, last month may have dispelled them. The country dominated the podium at last week’s closing ceremony of the South East Asia games, leading the overall medal count with 182 golds in the mix. They also played host to the games and a high-profile Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit making it look easy. The U.S. government has taken notice, with Obama making his second visit to Indonesia in two years for the ASEAN summit. And, as the Obama administration has been wont to do, the president praised Indonesia as regional leader in democracy and human rights.
But, the games’ start was a bit shaky amid a construction scandal involving rigged bids, and calling the country a leader in human rights is also not without dispute. Human Rights First recently returned from an assessment trip to Jakarta where we met with activists to learn from them whether the Indonesian government has prioritized human rights through its treatment of human rights defenders. They had the following to say, which we included in an alternative report to the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review of Indonesia slated for next summer:
- Impunity for past human rights abusers, particularly those involved at the highest levels in the 2004 assassination of leading human rights defender Munir Said Thalib, continues to be a central concern for human rights defenders and adds to an environment where defenders feel unprotected in their work.
- Human rights defenders acknowledge that outright violence against them has declined in recent years, but attacks and other forms of intimidation and harassment continue especially in conflict areas such as Papua and West Papua. Tactics used include surveillance and threats of violence and arrest that increase around the release of reports, trainings and before and after visits by international human rights groups. International human rights groups have limited access to these regions, further isolating local activists. In 2007, Hina Jilani called for increased “credible oversight and accountability” of government actors and “special complaint cells” for addressing threats to defenders working in conflict areas. To date, none of these recommendations have been implemented.
- Human rights defenders in conflict areas are also subject to excessive use of force by police when exercising their freedoms of assembly and expression. Most recently, in October 2011 police, backed by a military detachment, fired assault rifles over a demonstration in Jayapura, Papua, killing at least three. Over 300 protesters were arrested and witnesses report the use of torture.
- The work of human rights defenders, particularly those working on exposing corruption and past human rights abuses, has been impeded by criminal and civil defamation cases brought against them.
If the Indonesian government wants to continue this wave toward regional influence then it should start by protecting its own human rights defenders. It should do this by promptly investigating and prosecuting all threats and harassment against defender and adopting comprehensive legislation to ensure their protection. It should also create institutional mechanisms to ensure the enforcement of such legislation, including increased oversight and accountability of state actors such as the police, military, and security forces in their interactions with defenders. And it should repeal or amend legislation that criminalizes the work of human rights defenders, including journalists.
Lastly, Munir’s assassination and the call for accountability at the highest levels is just not going to go away and nor should it. President Yudhoyono should make clear that past and future attacks against human rights defenders will not go unpunished and publicly support a renewed independent investigation into Munir’s death that would lead to recommendations for prosecution and a case review of past criminal proceedings.