Wed, 22 Nov 2000

Human rights agenda

Human rights, one of the driving forces behind the reform movement three years ago, seems to have lost its shine now. Gone is the passion which once accompanied discussions on human rights issues. People are now more concerned about the technical and legal aspects of human rights, and less about the human costs and tragic lives of the victims.

Human rights, which once topped the list of priorities of President Abdurrahman Wahid's administration, seems to have been relegated from the agenda. Politicians and the media too are paying scant attention to the issue which helped bring down the tyrannical regime of president Soeharto in 1998.

The National Commission on Human Rights, having led the nationwide campaign to bring to people's attention the human rights abuses committed by the Soeharto regime, has also dropped out of the spotlight. The commission is rarely seen in the news nowadays. Two or three years ago, at the height of national euphoria over fighting against and redressing rights abuses, hardly a day went by without any front-page news about the commission's activities.

This week, the commission is holding its annual workshop in the East Java city of Surabaya, shying away from the hustle and bustle of Jakarta politics, even as it presents United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson as guest speaker. The theme of the four-day workshop which began on Tuesday is "Transitional justice determines the quality of Indonesia's future democracy". For such an important subject and with notable speakers like Robinson, the commission has decided to lay low, meeting away from the prying eyes of the media in Jakarta.

Anyone visiting Indonesia today would be forgiven for thinking that human rights is no longer an issue in this country. Two or three years ago, it was considered the biggest issue of the day. But the visitor would be mistaken to assume that everything is all right in Indonesia, that human rights violations have stopped, or that past rights violations have been redressed.

What has happened in Indonesia is simply that the initiative has been taken over by the government, the state prosecutors, the courts of law, the politicians and, ironically, even the military, once the biggest perpetrator of human rights abuses. The initiative is no longer in the hands of the National Commission for Human Rights or other independent human rights organizations which once led the campaign in the country.

When it comes to redressing past human rights abuses, the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid has taken over most of the cases, refers them to the Attorney General's Office which investigates the incidents and prepares the prosecutions. A few minor cases have been brought to court for trial and one or two small ones have been settled in court.

The House of Representatives has got itself into the act, taking initiatives to amend the Constitution, to repeal repressive laws and to enact or review human rights laws to strengthen people's basic rights and give them legal protection and redress if they are violated.

With the executive, legislative and judicial branches adopting the reform agenda, there is almost nothing left for the likes of the National Commission for Human Rights to do. There is hardly any role left for independent rights organizations to play in a newly reformed Indonesia. Everything, it seems, has been taken care of. Or has it?

Anyone thinking in the affirmative could not be more wrong. The three branches of government may have taken the initiative, but they have not done a good job at all. The number of pending major human rights cases is too long to be listed here. But a few prominent cases give some idea about how the nation is failing in its human rights agenda.

Not a single case of the atrocities committed in East Timor in September last year has reached the court. Not a single Army general responsible for the security and safety of the East Timor people and property prior to and after the August 1999 ballot has been called to account. Not a single commanding Army officer has been tried in connection with the killings in Aceh even as the province has further degenerated into violence. We still do not know who shot the four students outside Trisakti University in Jakarta in May 1998. We still do not know about the fate of 14 missing people believed to have been kidnapped by the Army's Special Force, because the investigation has been stopped.

Human rights violations meanwhile continue. And the atrocities are no longer the monopoly of the government. Violent conflicts in Maluku, in Central Sulawesi, in Madura (East Java) and many other areas pit one group in society against another. The use of force, and infringing upon other's basic human rights in the process, has come to be the norm in settling conflicts.

All of these suggest that the human rights issue in this country is still far from being resolved, even as the administration, the House of Representatives and the courts of law claim to have incorporated it into their agenda. The time has probably come now for the National Commission for Human Rights and other independent organizations to reseize the initiative and push human rights back into the national agenda where it belongs.