Australian Outlook

In this section

Indonesia Acknowledges Past Human Rights Violations, but Justice for Victims Remains Elusive

10 Feb 2023
By Dr Dirk Tomsa
President Joko Widodo received a report from the Non-Judicial Resolution Team for Serious Human Rights Violations (PPHAM) at the Merdeka Palace, Jakarta, on Wednesday, 11 January 2023. Source:  BPMI Setpres/Muchlis Jr/

On 11 January 2023, the Indonesian president made international headlines when he acknowledged that several cases of gross human rights violations had occurred in Indonesia since the 1960s. He expressed regret that these atrocities had occurred and indicated he would initiate compensation for the victims of the state-sanctioned violence.

In his speech, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) listed 12 incidents, including the mass killings of an estimated 500,000 communists and suspected sympathizers in 1965/66, the abductions and killings of students at the end of the authoritarian New Order period in 1998, as well as violent excesses by the security forces in the restive provinces of Aceh and Papua.

All of these human rights violations – and several others not included in Jokowi’s list – have been well-documented by scholars, journalists, and human rights activists. Until now, Indonesian official historiography has either denied they occurred or justified them as necessary actions in the fight against political enemies.

International human rights organisations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have cautiously welcomed Jokowi’s announcement as a “step on the long road to justice for victims and their loved ones,” but many Indonesian activists have criticized the president’s statement as insufficient.

Usman Hamid from Amnesty International, for instance, has said that “a mere acknowledgement without efforts to bring to trial those responsible for past human rights abuses will only add salt to the wounds of victims and their families. Put simply this statement is nothing without also addressing accountability and bringing an end to impunity. Merely mentioning the name of several tragic events is far from enough.”

Similarly, Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch described the announcement as “disappointing,” adding that Jokowi “could have done so much more than what he did today.” The Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation, meanwhile, expressed concern that Jokowi’s announcement may just be empty rhetoric.

The coming weeks and months will reveal whether or not these concerns are justified. Jokowi has pledged to set up a task force consisting of representatives of several ministries to oversee the implementation of recommendations made by the so-called Nonjudicial Resolution Team for Past Serious Human Rights Violations (PPHAM). But as the name of the team suggests (Nonjudicial Resolution Team), these recommendations are not aimed at bringing perpetrators to justice. Nor do they focus on genuine reconciliation measures such as truth-telling or a rewriting of the official history books.

Instead, they are primarily socio-economic measures such as providing financial compensation, access to healthcare, and pensions as well as bureaucratic procedures such as restoring victims’ legal rights and reinstating Indonesian citizenship for those who went into exile after the 1965 atrocities and are now willing to return. While those who seek justice and accountability may be disappointed with this rather technocratic approach, other survivors of the violence may well be satisfied that they will at least get their political rights back and receive some financial assistance to support their families. Such assistance might be particularly important for those currently living in more remote areas outside Java.

Even these measures, however, may face resistance from inside Jokowi’s inner circle. Military and police officers occupy prominent roles in Jokowi’s cabinet and given their deep involvement in the 12 atrocities, they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. This is especially the case for Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, who has been implicated in various gross human rights violations including the 1998 abductions and killings of student activists. It is expected that any efforts to rehabilitate the victims ahead of the 2024 elections where he is set to run for the presidency for a third time will be obstructed.

It is this peculiar constellation that has raised speculation as to why Jokowi made the announcement at this particular time, just when the contenders for the 2024 election are gearing up to forge political coalitions and prepare their formal nominations later this year. According to respected pollster SMRC, Prabowo has recently lost ground in what is widely regarded as a three-horse-race between the former general and the two provincial governors, Ganjar Pranowo (Central Java) and Anies Baswedan (Jakarta).

Against the background of these political dynamics, some media outlets have pondered whether Jokowi, who is rumoured to favour Ganjar as his successor, made his announcement with the underlying intention to further undermine Prabowo’s prospects for a candidature in 2024. But the opposite is also possible. Recall that Jokowi fought two deeply polarized presidential campaigns against Prabowo in 2014 and 2019, only to invite his former foe into his cabinet in 2019. Thus, another interpretation of the timing of the announcement might be that Prabowo may ultimately benefit from getting this potentially damaging topic raised now, more than 12 months before the election, as it might allow him to deflect future questions about his involvement in human rights violations by pointing out that these issues were directly addressed under his watch as Defence Minister.

Whatever Jokowi’s intentions,  whether or not the announcement will be followed by concrete next steps and tangible outcomes for victims may ultimately depend on whether or not civil society organisations can now put pressure on the government to follow through on its promises. Unfortunately, however, broader trends in Indonesia’s recent democratic trajectory make this rather unlikely.

During Jokowi’s second term, the quality of Indonesian democracy has steadily declined as space for protest and dissent has narrowed and human rights protections have been eroded with the recent passing of the controversial new Criminal Code. Moreover, members of the security apparatus continue to enjoy “a high degree of impunity for illegal behaviour.” This was evident once again in the recent trial of retired military liaison officer Isak Sattu who was found not guilty of crimes against humanity for his role in the 2014 shooting deaths of four Indigenous Papuan teenagers in Paniai, Papua. Perhaps even more concerning than Isak’s acquittal was the fact that he was the only officer who was actually charged while others higher up in the chain of command were never put on trial.

Taken together, these are strong indications that the path from the president’s acknowledgment of human rights violations to tangible outcomes for the victims will be long and arduous. Only if the broader trend of democratic decline can be reversed will the prospects for justice improve.

Dirk Tomsa is Associate Professor in Politics and Head of the Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy. He previously coordinated the Bachelor of Global Studies degree and the Politics and International Studies majors.