Thursday, November 5, 2015

Indonesian Human Rights: Greater Protections since Reformasi?

By Jack Buckley

Abundant commentary exists on the impacts felt throughout the Indonesian archipelago since the resignation of former authoritarian ruler Suharto and the beginning of reformasi in 1998. In the field of human rights, however, there has been little effort to explain the processes facilitating increased human rights protections for Indonesian citizens today.

These human rights protections in Indonesia are not, however, experienced equally across the country. Various formal institutions have been established to promote human rights protections such as the freedom of expression, the freedom of association, and the freedom to choose a religion. These institutions include amendments to the Constitution and a national commission for human rights.

Except these formal institutions are regularly trumped by informal institutions in different regions of Indonesia, most notably in the outer islands dominated by centralised Jakarta policy-making and inter-regional rivalry. One such example in the earlier stages of reformasi is then President Megawati Sukarnoputri attempting to divide the Indonesian controlled territory in Papua into three separate provinces in an effort to engineer the electoral status of the restless region. This move backfired when the Indonesian Supreme Court struck down the legislation in 2003 and controversy continued as violent local protests over the freedoms of expression and association persist.

In today’s Indonesia, captivated by monitoring the successes and failures of the reform-minded Joko Widodo administration, many of the freedoms and rights experienced by everyday Indonesians are determined by the increasing democratisation of formal government institutions. Once formal government institutions operate with transparency and accountability, the ability for corrupt officials to exploit existing shortcomings will disappear and informal institutions which perpetuate human rights abuses will most likely follow suit.

Broad efforts to achieve the democratisation goal are seen globally and in the efforts of the Australian aid program to assist bureaucratic reform in Indonesia. A 2013 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights addressed the centrality of good institutional governance in achieving human rights protections with recommendations pertinent to Indonesia’s human rights development such as “centrally formulated policy should take into account the needs of citizens throughout the country.” What’s more, Australia’s aid investment plan to Indonesia highlights the need to improve public sector governance. Evidence of this is seen in the cooperation of Indonesian and Australian government ministries in the Bureaucratic Reform Initiative funded for AUD$11.8 million over the past five years.

The quality of human rights protections throughout Indonesia, including the outer islands, can only be assessed once the necessary conditions for formal institutions to protect these rights are in place. The improved delivery of public services may be the linchpin for success in this space and look set to improve under the Widodo administration’s commitment to bureaucratic reform and reform more broadly. However, reformasi period reforms to human rights remain incomplete and are still disappointingly applied in the outer islands where violations persist and some of Indonesia’s previous ethnic and religious issues may yet again be revived.

*Jack Buckley is a Masters candidate at the Australian National University and can be contacted at

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