Friendship requires honesty: UK needs to raise human rights and democracy in Indonesia

15 Nov 2021
Steve Alston
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On Nov. 11, the UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, visited Indonesia during a week-long trip to Southeast Asia. Truss’s outing happened in the context of the UK’s post-Brexit objectives of “tilting” towards the Indo-Pacific region.

In her meetings with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Truss aimed to deepen cooperation between the UK and Indonesia in economy, security and technology.  

Yet there are several issues which should also have been aired by Truss during her visit. The question of the military’s continuing power and its impact on human rights and democracy requires honesty from the UK side. More could have been done on environmental issues too. The meeting was also an opportunity for the Indonesian Government to reflect on continuing challenges in these areas in order to fully realize ongoing democratic reforms.  

Recently, following revelations of a covert Foreign Office misinformation campaign in Indonesia in the 1960s which encouraged the massacres of alleged leftists, we called on the United Kingdom government to apologize and appoint independent counsel to conduct an inquiry. No senior military personnel or politician in Indonesia has ever been held to account for the massacres; and there has never been an officially recognized independent fact-finding or truth-seeking process.

Addressing the issue of militarism in relation to the 1965 massacres could not be more important in view of what Truss said she would discuss in Jakarta. Truss reported before arrival that the UK government planned to build a “network of liberty” among allies in the region including Indonesia. She also said she would establish a “joint working group on counterterrorism and a cyber dialogue…”.

However, the Indonesian government’s understanding of “terrorism” does not necessarily accord with that of international institutions such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Recently, it has classified the National Liberation Army of West Papua, (TPNPB), an armed independence group, as “terrorist”, approving the Indonesian military’s involvement in antiterror operations there, even when this classification may not be legitimate under international humanitarian law.

No independent, inter-governmental body has been permitted to make an assessment of the impacts of conflict in Papua on civilians, and there is a de facto ban on foreign journalists reporting from the region. As we have reported many times before, the security forces and intelligence services are known to have stalked, harassed and intimidated human rights defenders online.

Truss should not agree to use UK taxpayers’ money to cooperate with the Indonesian security forces or intelligence services, including in the field of “cybersecurity”, while serious questions remain about its involvement in operations which have led to human rights abuses. During her visit, civilians were bearing the brunt of security force operations in Papua through displacement and some became targets of indiscriminate security force violence.

In recent weeks, human rights defenders and lawyers in Indonesia have also been deliberately targeted by the security forces. On Sunday, the day that Truss arrived in Southeast Asia, an explosive device detonated outside the home of family members of Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer who has spoken out in defense of human rights in West Papua.

In the 2021 Integrated Review, the policy document setting out the UK’s new global role, the FCDO promised to “defend universal human rights including by working with local civil society and human rights defenders”. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in that document that "...democratic societies are the strongest supporters of an open and resilient international order, in which global institutions prove their ability to protect human rights…” The UK government promises to implement an “…independent sanctions regime to hold to account those involved in serious human rights violations and abuses”.

Truss should have made good on some of these promises by raising urgent concerns over Koman’s case and those of other human rights defenders. Failing to properly investigate these cases in Indonesia could raise concerns that the police, charged with investigating these incidents of violent attacks and intimidation, lack commitment to do so, or worse, are colluding with the perpetrators.

Indonesia has the third largest rainforest in the world which is being rapidly depleted partly because the country is also the largest exporter of palm oil in the world, a major factor in deforestation. At the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, signatories of the COP26 Forest Agreement, including Indonesia, committed to stop deforestation by 2030. Despite the statement calling for a “halt” to deforestation by 2030, Indonesia’s deputy foreign minister, Mahendra Siregar, quickly reneged on the agreement, describing it as “misleading”. After meeting Truss, Retno said Indonesia would “walk the talk”, despite her deputy not retracting his earlier statement. Retno’s assurances do not guarantee that Indonesia will be accountable as a signatory of an international agreement: If the UK is serious about its commitment to upholding a "rules based international order", and as COP26 host, it ought to now establish a dialogue with Indonesia on deforestation pledges, and not merely to smooth over the shambolic aftermath of Mahendra’s remarks.  

Alongside palm oil, another concern relating to the so-called "green economy" should have been the role of massive "food estate" plantations which the Indonesian government claims will address food security. Previous plans for food estates have led to ecologically disastrous outcomes and dispossessed indigenous communities of their land. Recent plans indicate that the military will be involved in establishing yet more food estates in Papua.

The UK should also have used this opportunity to express its willingness to apologize for its role in encouraging mass killings in the 1960s, and also to address unresolved questions related to military and police involvement in mass killings and human rights abuses.

It could have started by reiterating its support for human rights defenders, insisting that threats and attacks against them halt and are properly investigated, making this a precondition for further security cooperation. All of this would have required an honesty from both sides as Britain finds its way in the world outside the EU, and as Indonesia struggles to understand and act on the manifold legacies from its past on its future democratic path.  


The writer is chairperson of TAPOL, a UK-based NGO that promotes human rights, peace and democracy in Indonesia and West Papua.

This article was published in with the title "Friendship requires honesty: UK needs to raise human rights and democracy in Indonesia".