Tue, 25 Oct 1994

About human rights

In this age of globalization there seems to be a growing tendency on the part of foreign countries -- especially those that extend aid to others -- to know what is happening in the other countries. A similar trend can also be observed among non- governmental organizations (NGOs) around the globe.

The latest example of this is a statement released by the New York-based Human Rights Watch/Asia yesterday, accusing Indonesia of cracking down on NGOs and on the press ahead of next month's APEC meeting here. The organization called on the participants of the scheduled meeting "to tell the Indonesian hosts that rule of law would be far preferable to one of enforced tranquility, purchased at the price of intimidation, harassment, press bans etc."

This tendency -- especially with respect to the observance of human rights -- has understandably made many developing countries uneasy, because, as they see it, the respect of human rights is inseparable from the protection of other rights in their respective societies. For this reason, merely looking at a country's "human rights record" could produce a biased, or at least an unbalanced picture of the overall situation.

Such a lopsided evaluation may look even more awkward in light of the fact that in many industrially advanced countries the implementation of human rights is related to many other principles. The truth is that it is not only the developing countries that have to consider the existence of many other related principles, but also the industrialized nations.

To illustrate, even the United States' President Bill Clinton has demonstrated his "understanding" of China's human rights situation, which the U.S. government attacked frequently in the not so distant past. Now, under the principle that trade comes first and human rights in China later, Washington continues to boost its trade with Beijing without making any further fuss about reported human rights abuses.

It is in this perspective, we believe, that we should understand President Soeharto's comment at the human rights workshop here yesterday. He said that, for Indonesia, human rights are not only a part of this country's legal or political program, but a universal manifestation of the belief in God Almighty. This view implies that a discussion of basic rights must include all the efforts that we make to improve the dignity of mankind and to enhance the rights and responsibilities of all citizens.

All this, however, could mean that other countries and non- governmental watchdog bodies may find it hard to properly view the Indonesian human rights situation in a proper perspective as long as they fail to understand what basic rights are involved.

But the important question is whether the Indonesian concept is workable in the era of globalization on this shrinking planet earth? Unlikely as it may seem, the answer seems to give reason for optimism. Soeharto in his address guaranteed that Indonesia would be open to any beneficial values coming from the outside.

The next relevant question probably is, do foreign countries and organizations have the right to evaluate Indonesia's human rights record? In the words of Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Alatas yesterday the only organizations that have the right to do so are those that are affiliated with the United Nations. He said other parties should only do so as long as they do it objectively and with a sense of balance.

So, the problem should be clear.