Is Indonesia inching toward justice?

    As far as Indonesia has come on human rights since the repressive Soeharto years, the authorities have stubbornly refused to deal with crimes of the past.

    Richard Bennett, Hong Kong | Opinion | Thu, June 25 2015, 6:32 AM

    As far as Indonesia has come on human rights since the repressive Soeharto years, the authorities have stubbornly refused to deal with crimes of the past.

    Across Indonesia, hundreds of thousands — if not more than a million — victims and their loved ones are denied truth, justice and reparations and still carry open wounds from the country’s bloody past.

    The 1965 killings, the brutal decades-long Aceh conflict, the 1999 Timor-Leste independence struggle — the list of violence is long, but all too often those who suffered the worst have been left to fend for themselves, while perpetrators of human rights violations continue to walk free and in some cases hold positions of power.

    Amnesty International and many other human rights organizations have for decades been campaigning for victims to get the truth, justice and reparation they are entitled to under international law, but it remains an uphill struggle.

    Successive Indonesian governments have clearly lacked the political will to tackle the issue of crimes of the past, and victims face insurmountable obstacles in seeking access to justice before the courts.

    Instead, a chilling culture of silence has prevailed, where even discussing these issues poses tangible risks.

    There has been some incremental progress. In December 2013, for example, the Aceh legislative council passed the Aceh Truth and Reconciliation bylaw that calls for the establishment of a truth commission, which offered a glimmer of hope for victims and their family members. However, it has yet to be established.

    On the national stage, the central government has failed to enact a new national truth commission law after it was struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2006.

    There has yet to be a comprehensive reparation program specifically aimed at addressing the harm suffered by victims and families of human rights violations over the last decades.

    Last year, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took office on the back of lofty promises to make human rights a priority — including providing justice for gross human rights violations in the past.

    The past few weeks have finally seen some action to back up those words.

    On May 21, the attorney general (AG) announced that the government will establish a non-judicial mechanism to resolve past human rights violations through “a reconciliation committee”.

    Disappointingly, the AG stated that criminal investigations and prosecutions could not proceed in these cases due to a lack of evidence. The reconciliation committee would consist of related government institutions, civil society groups and families of the victims.

    The committee will look into seven “gross violations of human rights” cases in particular — the 1989 Talangsari massacre, the enforced disappearance of anti-Soeharto activists in 1997-1998, the Trisakti University shootings, the Semanggi I and II shootings in 1998 and 1999, the mysterious killings of alleged criminals in the 1980s, the communist purge of 1965-1966 and abuses in Wasior in 2001 and Wamena in 2003, both in Papua.

    Following decades of impunity, the proposed reconciliation committee is potentially a small, positive first step that demonstrates some intent on behalf of the Jokowi administration to finally tackle this issue.

    However, is Indonesia really inching toward justice?

    The answer is that it is too early to tell. There are still many unanswered questions: What exactly will the Committee do? Will it establish the truth about these crimes? Will it recommend reparation for victims? Will it be truly independent and fully transparent in its work? Will it have sufficient powers to summon witnesses and evidence? Will it protect witnesses? Will its findings feed into on-going criminal investigations or will there be a political effort to grant amnesties that will only further entrench the impunity it purports to address?

    As the answers to these questions and others emerge in the coming weeks or months, we will see whether the government is genuinely committed to taking some steps towards justice, truth and reparation or whether the process is simply political window dressing.

    At the same time, sight should not be lost of the thousands of other unresolved cases that cannot move forward due to systemic flaws in the justice system and the failure of the parliament to adopt a new law providing for an effective national truth commission.

    Much broader efforts are required. These include revising the military tribunal law to ensure that military personnel suspected of committing serious human rights violations can be brought before civilian courts, revising the flawed human rights court system so that they are accessible by all victims of serious human rights violations and ensuring that such violations, including torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, are included as offenses in the revised Criminal Code.

    Healing the wounds of Indonesia’s past violence is not something that will be achieved overnight.

    The government may at last be taking an important step in the right direction — we hope so and that it will be followed by the huge strides that are much needed.

    The writer is Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.