Sat, 09 Oct 1999

'Indonesia needs to learn a lot about human rights'

The call by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan for intervention in the face of gross human rights violations has sparked a controversy. International legal expert from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta Sugeng Istanto discusses the issue with The Jakarta Post.

Question: How do you view the Secretary-General's appeal regarding intervention in strife torn regions even with the approval of the concerned government?

Answer: The United Nations (UN) can indeed request the Security Council to take certain measures toward alleged violations of peace and international order. However this can only be done based on existing rules.

The UN is an international organization whose members come from sovereign countries. The international community still sticks to this principal. Unless there are certain things which enable intervention, the Security Council's authority is not unlimited. If there are violations against international law, the Security Council still needs permission from the concerned country (to take action).

Q: What are the existing international rules in this case?

A: The existing rules concerning international tribunals require approval from the involved parties. The rules on wars -- in this case the 1949 Geneva Convention -- to conduct an inquiry into a certain country, also require permission. Only then can the UN set up an inquiry team.

There are certain instances which do not need permission. One example was when Iraq occupied Kuwait and multinational forces then attacked Iraq. What happened was a violation of international law which does not allow the aggression of one state toward another.

In the case of East Timor, the international community also considers this a case of aggression or occupation; an international crime took place, for instance a violation towards international order or war crimes.

But under international law it is also possible for gross crimes to be handled by domestic courts.

Q: Would you also categorize the East Timor case as aggression?

A: In East Timor there were parts of the community who accepted the entrance of Indonesia. So I don't think the UN could enter just like that and I know the UN has been very careful about this. Through the tripartite agreement involving Indonesia and Portugal the UN also acknowledges Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor, however temporary.

I privately see an element of coercion when Indonesia entered East Timor. But at that time we got the support of western countries, given fears of a second Cuba. Strangely, once we were in East Timor we were negligent. We prioritized security instead of welfare.

Q: Some say the UN is discriminative regarding violations of international rules such as those concerning human rights by different countries. Your comment?

A: I haven't followed that too closely. But it is clear from reports that violations in other countries such as racial discrimination in the United States do exist. Violations towards the rights of the Aborigines in Australia are never raised by the international community while child labor here is blown up.

Q: Why do you think such discriminative treatment occurs?

A: I would say it is the security approach applied by the New Order regime. The United States supported our entrance into East Timor and I believe it retracted its support because of the security approach applied in the territory. A welfare approach there would have drawn international support despite (the campaign), even though there are figures like Jose Ramos Horta and Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao.

Respect for human rights is considered the source of democracy. And if rights are no longer respected in one country this would affect other countries. This is the western view. It is regrettable that the government did not take a human rights approach in the East Timor case.

Q: Would you say there are certain interests behind the discrimination?

A: What is clear is the principal that all humans are entitled to the same treatment irrespective of ethnicity, creed, race or nationality. I think Indonesia must still learn a lot about human rights and how to treat people equally. The strong should not oppress the weak, they should instead protect the weak. (swa)