Flowers are placed outside the Indonesian consulate in Sydney on April 29, following the execution of two Australian drug convicts Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia. Indonesia executed seven foreign drug convicts including two Australians by firing squad on April 29, causing Canberra to withdraw its ambassador over the 'cruel' punishment. (AFP Photo/Saeed Khan)

End Death Penalty, Adopt Anti-Drug Policies That Work, Experts Tell Jokowi

JUNE 05, 2015

Jakarta. Prominent academics and experts have called on the Indonesian government to end the death penalty for drug offenses and commit to proven public health approaches to address drug use.

In an open letter to President Joko Widodo published in the June 6 edition of the British health journal The Lancet, the group called for the discontinuation of “strategies which have been found to be counterproductive such as involuntary rehabilitation and the death penalty.”

“A close examination of the nature and extent of drug use in Indonesia reveals substantial gaps in knowledge and a scarcity of evidence to support forced rehabilitation and the punitive, law enforcement-led approach favored by the government,” the letter said.

“The Indonesian government has shown increased commitment to addressing drug use and guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens, but in order to achieve this it must choose public health and harm reduction strategies,” Prof. Dr. Irwanto of the HIV and AIDS Research Center at Jakarta’s Atma Jaya University and a veteran drug and HIV researcher, one of the signatories of the letter, said in a statement.

“The current drug war approach has been a proven failure around the globe, even causing more harm than good,” he added.

Dr. Ignatius Praptoraharjo, a researcher at the Center for Health Policy and Management at the School of Medicine at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University, said the government had sidelined effective approaches to drug use in favor of a more punitive stance.

“We know what works: we already have the evidence and have been implementing health-focused programs that work in Indonesia since the early 2000s,” he said. “We have an ethical obligation to provide our citizens with options that save lives, such as needle syringe programs, opioid substitution therapy and community-based, voluntary drug treatment.

“But despite the proven success of these interventions, political commitment and funds are lacking, and current punitive strategies in Indonesia do not provide enough space for meaningful health programs. Our limited funds are instead being used to bolster fear-based approaches, which effectively drive people in need further away from health programs,” Ignatius said.

The letter said there was “evidence that criminalization of people who use drugs and punitive law-enforcement approaches have failed to reduce the prevalence of drug use and are fueling the HIV epidemic.”

The group also raised "serious concerns about the validity" of the figures for drug use and drug-related deaths frequently cited by the president and other officials to justify their hard-line approach to anti-narcotics enforcement, and urged the president to invest in more accurate data collection.

The group said it was concerned that the government was using the estimates as the basis for national policies without providing sufficient opportunity for independent peer review.

“Obtaining valid estimates of drug use is not an easy, straightforward process, yet we need to make sure that national policies are based on evidence that is thoroughly peer-reviewed and transparent,” Atma Jaya’s Irwanto said. “Each human life matters. Productive human lives may be compromised by misguided policies.”

Dr. Kemal Siregar, the secretary general of the National AIDS Commission, warned that drug users faced increasing stigma, discrimination and human rights violations as punitive drug control measures trumped public health.

“HIV infections will continue to rise as long as drug users continue to live in fear of arrest or placement in involuntary rehabilitation,” he said.

The signatories to the open letter, ranging from public health experts and researchers, to theologists and human rights activists, argued in favor of establishing an independent, multi-sectoral committee on drug use comprising relevant government agencies, ministries, researchers, service providers and community leaders tasked with reviewing available drug-related data, setting priorities, recommending evidence-informed actions and monitoring progress.

“As people who use drugs, we have seen and experienced for ourselves that repressive and punitive approaches have exacerbated drug-related deaths and harms such as HIV and hepatitis C transmission,” said Edo Agustian, the national coordinator of the Indonesian Drug Users Network.

“We urge the government to work together with drug-using communities, academics and other stakeholders to build a more effective response before any more lives are lost,” he said.

Further coverage

Editorial: Deal With the Drug Issue the Right Way