Victims of rights abuse in Indonesia need more than compensation

Indonesian President Joko Widodo plans to establish a rights committee to resolve past human rights abuses. EPA/Adi Weda

Eight months into his presidency Joko Widodo is moving to fulfil his campaign promise to resolve the country’s past human rights abuses by setting up a rights committee. But activists and victims of rights abuse are worried that the new human rights mechanism will preserve the culture of impunity.

Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), who narrowly won the 2014 presidential election from ex-military general Prabowo Subianto, had listed in his campaign manifesto several human rights cases to be resolved if elected.

Jokowi promised to resolve violations that happened during and after the fall of Indonesian dictator Suharto such as the Trisakti-Semanggi killings and May 1998 riots; cases that occurred at the height of Suharto’s consolidation of Pancasila as state ideology in the 1980s such as the Tanjung Priok and Talangsari massacres; and the 1965 communist pogrom.

Preserving impunity

Indications that the new rights committee will exempt perpetrators from being held accountable can be seen from the statements of Indonesia’s Attorney-General Prasetyo. He argued it was impossible to resolve the cases through trials and asked victims to accept reconciliation.

The government has yet to formally announce its concept of reconciliation. But it seems that the government wants to approach reconciliation by merely apologising to victims and giving compensation. Individual perpetrators will not be brought to justice.

The National Human Rights Commission also stressed that the rights committee will not investigate on a case-by-case basis, but instead will examine general patterns of mistakes.

We should be sceptical about this mechanism.

Some of the alleged perpetrators, such as former intelligence chief A.M. Hendropriyono who was allegedly involved in the Talangsari massacre, are politically connected to Jokowi. It is also unlikely that Jokowi, due to his weak political position, will resolve the case of forced disappearances of pro-democracy activists. Prabowo, the alleged perpetrator, is chairman of the opposition Gerindra party, which controls the parliament with its Red-and-White coalition.

The Truth Committee

This is not the first time the government has tried to present a human rights mechanism that’s biased towards perpetrators.

In 2004, Indonesia enacted the 2004 Law on Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Despite its name, the commission was designed basically to force victims to reconcile with the perpetrators.

Article 27 of the law stipulated that in order for victims to receive compensation and have their name rehabilitated, the perpetrators had to be given amnesty.

Rights activists and victims opposed the law and requested a review by the Constitutional Court. The court concurred with the petitioners that the law benefited perpetrators by giving them impunity rather than justice for victims. In 2006, the court decided the law was unconstitutional.

During the court proceedings, the government extensively explained about restitution and compensation for victims. The government did not expound on how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could provide justice for victims and stop impunity to prevent similar incidents from happening.

Unfortunately, Jokowi’s administration is still maintaining the same twisted paradigm of the 2004 law.

Prioritise victims interest

Jokowi should learn from the failure of the 2004 law. It failed to put victims at the centre of resolving the wrongs of human rights violations. The government reduced victims’ interests to financial compensation and hoped that would close the case.

Human rights resolutions should give remedy to victims and reveal the truth. Institutions that are responsible for abuses should be reformed. It is also important to name the perpetrators.

The only way to establish credible mechanisms to resolve rights abuses is to listen to victims’ aspirations. The government should be open to all available mechanisms, which includes bringing perpetrators to the court of justice.

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