'Law enforcement not yet a priority in Indonesia'

In its latest report, Human Rights Watch recommends the Indonesian government end the military's involvement in business activities, which it says hurts reform and leads to abuses of power. Human Rights Watch Asia division executive director Brad Adams outlined his views on human rights protection in the country in an interview with The Jakarta Post's Tiarma Siboro and Dwi Atmanta.

Question: Do you think Indonesia has managed to address human rights issues in the wake of reform?

Answer: The situation now has changed either a lot or a little. If we refer to the era of (former president) Soeharto, the situation has changed dramatically. Local NGOs can now operate, the press has more freedom and civil society has more space. On the other hand, some of the courts dealing with rights issues haven't improved very much .... Maybe the situation is even a little bit worse if we consider that the military is the main leftover problem of this country.

The idea of putting the Indonesian Military completely back to its barracks seems less than what we had expected. The idea of complete civilian control over the professional military is less than what we knew a couple of years ago. In that way, we deem that the situation has not really been improved.

Now we have a special court instead of a normal court to deal with human rights issues, but still it does not solve the problems, as evident in the Tanjung Priok case and East Timor case.

The government even defends the presence of military officers implicated in rights abuses in their positions. Some major problems in Aceh, Poso, Maluku and Papua have never really been solved. There were a lot of ad hoc initiatives, but structures have not been changed.

Are there any hopes for improvement?

I think judges should be given more space for democracy. Human rights enforcement depends on a strong independent court, so do strong law enforcers and a police squad. So far, I don't see any signs that law enforcement has been put as a priority. (Former president) Soeharto is the symbol of impunity, as we all believe that he is the most corrupt and abusive person in this country's history. Having a deal with him is a failure of the legal system.

Sure, President Susilo (Bambang Yudhoyono) has tried to solve some major problems of this country, such as Aceh by the signing of the peace accord. Whether he has the power though, things may go badly unless he can control military personnel, who are part of the conflicts. Do you think the government has been doing a good job addressing the Aceh issue following the truce?

The situation in Aceh is now completely different. Initially, we were worried that the military would boycott the peace talks. We documented abuses by the military after a major deployment of troops in May 2003. Murders, tortures, arbitrary detentions and those things have stopped now. I'm sure there are still lots of questions in the area, such as livelihoods or the huge number of unemployed people. People in Aceh are worried about their future.

The bill on Aceh governance offers a conditional retroactive principle in trying past human rights abuses there. Are you optimistic about this?

The legislators and the government have to change the draft. I am saying that somebody was murdered and somebody must be prosecuted with no conditions. There were serious rights abuses in Aceh before the signing of the peace deal. We should not build impunity into the law, otherwise we will not see Acehnese get justice. Exceptional people can say forgive and forget, but most people cannot. We can see peace in Aceh, but how can we see justice if impunity is being institutionalized in the law?

Talking about Papua, do you agree with Australia's decision to grant asylum to 42 Papuans?

I don't believe that Australia has a certain political motivation to grant the asylum. Who knows about what has been going on in Papua, and the reason is that the government has never opened up Papua. When diplomats come in, they (the Indonesian government) will follow them, will harass them and will interrogate them. The (Indonesian) government has never allowed non-governmental organizations to enter Papua. Papua has been considered a very sensitive area. If the Indonesian government has nothing to hide, they should open Papua. If the allegation of rampant rights abuses in Papua is a lie, the Indonesian government can show this. There are about 13,000 to 14,000 troops in Papua and I wonder why that little area has so many troops.

I don't think a separatist movement in Papua is the only reason for the presence of the troops. Separatism is still a secretive sentiment in Papua. But we should not justify a military operation which is supposed to be a police operation. Is it just 25 people playing with guns or is it a real separatist army? We don't really care about the government's policy to deploy a huge number of troops there, but we do care about what they do there?

Do you believe that radicalism is the main root of the sectarian violence which has marked the reform era?

I am persuaded on this point that public sentiment has been manipulated so the people are encouraged to hate the other side. I don't know whether the conflicts really have anything to do with religious affairs, but once this thing has been started, it is very hard to go back. Should we look at the cases in Maluku and Poso, it is incredibly sad to say that not very long ago, no one could imagine that it would happen. It happened and it is likely being manipulated.

* Published by The Jakarta Post, on June 23, 2006