Human Rights violations continue to haunt us

28 Apr 2005
Aguswandi, TAPOL
Appeared in: 

Oppression is bad for a government's image, especially a government such as Indonesia that is still struggling to repair its reputation internationally. It deprives it of its legitimacy and provides other countries with a justified reason to censure it.

The continuation of human rights violations, conflicts and oppression in Indonesia in the post-Soeharto era, especially in Aceh and Papua, has clouded some positive developments in Indonesian democracy. It has made the world cautious about giving Indonesia a fuller role in the international arena.

While other Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and India are proudly campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council, after its reforms Indonesia is still busy explaining to the world its domestic actions and policies that contravene international standards of human rights.

In public meetings overseas on Indonesia, several questions are asked again and again by many who are concerned about the country's transition to democracy. Questions are regularly posed about the reform of the military, Islamic militants, sustaining the work of democratization, corruption and the problems of human rights, especially in Aceh and Papua.

Government representatives have standard answers to most questions apart from those relating to Aceh, West Papua and human rights. They usually highlight current positive developments with optimism. On military reform they refer to policies designed to control the political and business role of the army.

On the question of Islamic militants, diplomats will point out that moderate Islam, rather than militant Islam, is still dominating religious discourse. Other positive developments are also used to prove the regime is changed and more democratic.

But the nervous parts of the answers usually occur when the diplomats have to explain the human rights situations, especially in Aceh and Papua. They find themselves in difficulty because they have to explain and defend the indefensible.

On Aceh and Papua, the common answer for hard line diplomats, is that it is a problem of separatism, and for moderate ones, that it is a legacy of the past - the Soeharto regime. But both would stress that the current government will do whatever it can to solve the problem peacefully.

However answers by diplomats abroad are ultimately more about spin - preempting a situation where they would be held to blame - than about avoiding the oppression in the first place.

It is difficult but important to accept that even the present government continues to allow the military to continue its old and anachronistic method - the use of force to solve both conflicts. The continuation of the military offensive in Aceh and the build-up of the military presence in Papua represents the continuity between present government and the old one. In the case of Aceh, it is unfortunate that while the government is talking about peace, the Army is making war. There are further plans for new troops to be deployed to Aceh, as well as Papua and Poso in Central Sulawesi.

These military operations in conflict areas have resulted in continuing violence and human rights violations. Although the authorities try to keep the conflicts secret, human rights reports from these militarized areas regularly come from beneath the radar. They hurt Indonesia's reputation overseas and adversely affect the image of positive democratic developments in the country.

On the same day that the foreign minister, Hassan Wirayuda, proudly spoke in front of the UN Security Council meeting in New York last year about how great Indonesian democracy was after the successful and peaceful elections, Human Rights Watch published a report about extrajudicial killings, torture and unfair trials in Aceh.

When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently visited Australia and New Zealand trying to seek support, the public and even members of parliament protested about the killings in Aceh and Papua. When on many other occasions Indonesian diplomats try to convince the world about the wonderful progress made in Indonesia, they are frequently interrupted with questions about Aceh and West Papua and the general problem of human rights.

Being hostile to foreign and domestic members of the public and groups critical of the human rights problem is not a solution. Indeed it actually worsens the already existing problem. The current policy to ban foreign groups or individuals working on human rights from visiting Aceh and Papua will make the world ask "what are you afraid of?" and "are you hiding something?"

It is even a legitimate question to ask what Indonesia has in common with North Korea, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe -- countries infamous for their grave human rights abuses. The answer is that Amnesty International and other human rights group are not allowed to visit these places. The UN commission of experts recently set up by Kofi Annan to review the prosecution of serious crimes in East Timor, was refused entry to Indonesia this month. I wonder how Makarim Wibisono, the Indonesian ambassador as the chairman of the UN commission on Human Rights, explains this in Geneva.

The event to commemorate the Asian-African Summit in Jakarta, of course, will be full of praise for the government, but it will be a superficial image of Indonesia's leading role in the international community. The current Helsinki talks to pursue peace in Aceh, are a far better way to creating a better situation on the ground and a better image of Indonesia overseas.

The correct diplomatic strategy for Indonesia is not to try and defend the many wrongs done by its Army in Aceh and West Papua and in other human-rights sensitive areas but to try and solve the problems and improve the situation on the ground via peaceful methods. Dignified diplomacy is diplomacy based on correcting the policy from inside, not justifying the wrongs through exploiting the pragmatism of international politics outside. Without genuine work to improve its conditions domestically, it will continue to be difficult for Indonesia to play a significant role internationally.

Tagged: Aceh