As Dutch FM Visits Indonesia, Human Rights Dilemma Lingers

Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders. (Reuters Photo/Jacques Brinon)

By : Bastiaan Scherpen | on 8:37 PM March 23, 2016
Category : News, Featured, Human Rights, Foreign Affairs

Jakarta. Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders is in Indonesia this week to take part in the Bali Process ministerial conference, but he'll also be looking to cement ties in meetings with key ministers. Because even though there has been significant improvement on the trade front — the Netherlands has become one of the most important investors in the archipelago — Indonesia's relationship with its former colonial ruler remains delicate.

Human rights have long been a key element of Dutch foreign policy and with Indonesia having just made headlines internationally over a series of high-profile statements targeting the country’s LGBT community, no end in sight to problems in Papua and a group of Moluccan political prisoners still behind bars, it will be difficult for Koenders to not speak out one way or another.

Koenders — who hails from the Labor Party (PvdA), just like the former Dutch development cooperation minister Jan Pronk, famous for slamming the Suharto regime in the early 1990s over its rights record — will have to tread a fine line if he doesn't want to undo all the progress made in recent years.

Fragile relationship

Yohanes Sulaiman, an Indonesian expert on international relations, politics and security affairs, says that as far as Jakarta is concerned, ties with the Dutch are “cordial” at the moment.

“There hasn't been any [bilateral] ruckus about human rights lately,” he told the Jakarta Globe, saying things were different not too long ago. “Remember the Leopard tanks?”

The Dutch government in 2012 was forced to cancel the sale of used Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Indonesia after parliament — including the Labor Party, which was in opposition at the time — voted to reject the deal over concerns about the Indonesian Military (TNI)’s track record on human rights. Indonesia then procured the same type of tanks from Germany.

That low in the relationship between the two countries followed the cancellation of a much-anticipated trip by then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2010. A motion filed by Moluccan activists based in the Netherlands calling for the arrest of the Indonesian leader for alleged human right violations was behind Yudhoyono’s last-minute decision to stay home.

However, under current Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte ties strengthened significantly, especially after an official apology was made in 2013 for a series of massacres carried out by the Dutch military to crush resistance against colonial rule in South Sulawesi after Indonesia's 1945 declaration of independence.

That apology cleared the way for the biggest-ever Dutch trade mission to Indonesia in November 2013, led by Rutte, which now-Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi, who at the time was the Indonesian ambassador to the Netherlands, called "a big success."

After President Joko Widodo took office in 2014 and launched his no-holds-barred anti-drugs campaign, reintroducing executions of drug convicts, Indonesia-Netherlands ties took a plunge, however. Koenders even recalled the ambassador in Jakarta, Rob Swartbol, after Indonesia executed Dutch national Ang Kiem Soei, with Dutch and European Union officials voicing their strong objections to the death penalty.

Foreign direct investment

Rutte, the Dutch PM, is a member of the historically pro-business People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which wanted to sell the Dutch military’s tanks to Indonesia in 2012 regardless of human rights concerns expressed by opposition parties in parliament. His time at the helm has indeed provided a major boost in Netherlands-Indonesia trade ties.

The Netherlands was the third-biggest investor in Indonesia in the fourth quarter of 2015, data from the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) shows, after Singapore and Hong Kong but beating Asian powerhouses such as China (without Hong Kong), Japan and South Korea.

Dutch companies poured a total of almost $400 million into 174 Indonesian projects in the last three months of the year, the BKPM says.

For the whole year, investment realization from the Netherlands stood at $1.3 billion, the fourth-highest number after Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

The Netherlands has also played a key role in the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) project, better known as the Jakarta Sea Wall. Koenders was scheduled to visit Pluit in North Jakarta together with the capital’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, to see for himself what is being done in one of Jakarta's lowest-lying and most flood-prone areas.

'Domestic matters'

Separately on Thursday, Koenders was slated to meet with his counterpart Retno, as well as with the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Luhut Panjaitan — a key aide to Joko and considered by insiders to be one of the most powerful ministers in the cabinet.

In a press statement released before Koenders' trip, the Dutch Foreign Ministry said the main issues on the bilateral agenda would be “geopolitical developments in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Iran,” cooperation to tackle drug-related problems, “the position of Indonesia in Asia,” and the human rights situation in Indonesia — but first and foremost: trade and how to strengthen ties.

The statement added that Koenders would also be discussing human rights issues and the rule of law with representatives of civil society groups.

It is unlikely however that Indonesian officials will be very keen on discussing such issues with Koenders — or anybody else for that matter — as these are seen as a purely internal affair.

“For Indonesians those issues are domestic matters,” Yohanes told the Globe. “I think the Dutch would raise it, but they won't push it too much.”

If Koenders does publicly raise his human rights concerns, he risks reigniting the debate on past Dutch war crimes committed in the archipelago.

“I think the [Indonesian] government and the military are not that concerned about the massacres,” said Yohanes, who is a lecturer at General Achmad Yani University in Cimahi, near Bandung. “But of course, if the Dutch start talking about human rights, the usual suspects may raise those things again, even though in general, my feeling is that they no longer care.”

“There are some nationalist groups that are still pushing it,” he explained, “but generally they only get the media attention, and are encouraged by the military, if the Dutch are talking about Indonesian human rights abuses.”

Show More

 
MORE NEWS