Indonesian vote: ‘An opportunity to improve human rights’

Indonesians head to the polls on Wednesday to elect for a new president. In a DW interview, Josef Benedict, of Amnesty International, says their choice can determine the path human rights take in the country.

This week, the world’s most populous Muslim country is set to choose a new leader in the country’s third direct presidential elections. Their choice is between Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the popular governor of Jakarta, and Prabowo Subianto, a former general.

With only a couple of days to go, the race is tighter than ever, with opinion polls indicating the contest is too close to call. Both campaigns have engaged in various rounds of personal attacks in the past few days, which diverted attention from the political issues.

In a DW interview, Josef Benedict, Indonesia campaigner from Amnesty International says that the election can be a turning point for the country in terms of human rights, if the new president is able to face the past, as well as the present.

DW: Why is this election so important in terms of human rights in Indonesia?

Indonesia has come a long way since the Suharto dictatorship and the government has made a lot of progress with regards to human rights. They have signed up to numerous international human rights treaties, they have undertaken legal reforms, but over the last four to five years we’ve seen this reforms stagnate as well as an increase in some human rights violations happening in the country. Also, we are seeing a lack of implementation of their commitments on human rights.

Coalition politics has blocked plenty of the reforms; therefore we think this election could be a new opportunity – 17 years after the reform movement initiated the process of democratization – to improve the human rights situation, to reform laws and remove discriminatory laws that still exist, but also to strengthen accountability.

What are the most pressing human rights issues at the moment?

Amnesty International sent out a human rights agenda in April with a list of key issues, asking both candidates to look into it. One of the major issues raised was that of religious violence and discrimination. Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in the number of attacks against religious minorities such as the Ahmadiyah and Shia.

There is also a lot of discrimination, for instance, when non-state actors such as hardline Islamists groups create barriers for the establishment of places of worship. We have seen the failure of the government in terms of dealing with the hardliners.

The other contentious element is freedom of expression. While it has dramatically improved since the Suharto era, we have seen a clampdown on free speech in provinces like Papua and Maluku. In particular, political activists have been put away for up to 15 years for raising a flag or organizing a demonstration.

Another problem is police abuse. We continue to get reports of ill-treatment and torture by the police, excessive use of force and for many of these cases there is no accountability.

Can a new government truly change tack in terms of human rights?

What we are seeing is a lack of political will to address many of these issues. We really need to break away from the politics of the Suharto era. We hope the upcoming generation of leaders can really change the way politics is done in Indonesia and allow government to work much more closely with civil society and human rights defenders, especially in the legislation process. There are many past human rights violations that have yet to be acknowledged and victims are still seeking truth, justice and reparations.

Which are the most pressing issues the new president will have to face after taking office?

One of the main issues the president has to deal with is strengthening tolerance. The next president should try to bring different religious communities together, to address the actions undertaken by hardline groups against communities and remove the discriminatory laws. If he can take steps in the first 100 days towards tackling these issues, he will send a strong signal to both Indonesians as well as to the international community that he is committed to religious freedom.

Which candidate do you think is in a better position to address these issues?

Amnesty does not take a position on any of the candidates. We know that Jokowi has clearly outlined his vision for tackling some of these issues. We have also seen Prabowo mention some of these topics in his public debates. But I think what is important ultimately is the new president’s willingness to actually implement these human rights commitments.

Subianto Prabowo has been accused of human rights violations in the past. Do you think he is the right man to address these challenges?

We believe that any allegations of human rights violation committed, whether by Prabowo or anyone else, should be investigated. I know that there have been allegations made against him. However, since he has not been prosecuted for these offences by any tribunal we must assume he is innocent. The bigger issue here will be the new president’s willingness to address impunity. With Prabowo having this allegations hanging over his head it may be a bit of a challenge, but it is critical that whoever comes into power addresses the issues of the past.

How would you classify the past 10 years under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in terms of human rights?

During his first four years in power, we saw a bit more momentum. His administration ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political rights, as well as the International Convention on economic, social and cultural rights.

We saw some legal reform aimed at improving witness protection and women’s rights and I think Indonesia has had a quite important role in improving the debate around human rights in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with the set up of the ASEAN intergovernmental commission on human rights.

But in the last three to four years things have slowed down a bit. We have seen a lack of willingness to deal with issues around freedom of religion and religious persecution. Last year we saw the re-introduction of the death penalty, after fours years of hiatus. And there is a lack of progress in terms of dealing with human rights violations from the past. All in all it has been very patchy.

Do you think that it is possible to get back on to the right track?

Indonesia has come up with really good plans over the years. They have a national human rights action plan, they have also signed up to several human rights treaties. I think it is possible to reverse this decline with a leader who is willing to tackle these issues publicly, to discuss them with Parliament, to make the necessary reforms and who is willing to publically acknowledge some of the failures that former leaders have made. I think these elections are a real opportunity to do that.