Despite the tendency of some in society to dismiss human rights as an unwanted Western import, Indonesia's 1945 Constitution contains its own chapter on human rights, and as the highest source of law in the country, acts to protect the rights of all citizens. (Reuters Photo/Darren Whiteside)

Commentary: The Hijacking of Human Rights and the Paradox of Tolerance


JULY 27, 2017

Human rights in Indonesia have an interesting history.  It has long been contended by various elements in society that human rights are a foreign concept; a Western set of ideals that are unsuitable and unable to be applied to the Indonesian condition.

Despite the tendency of some in society to dismiss human rights as an unwanted Western import, Indonesia's 1945 Constitution – a document that precedes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by three years – contains its own chapter on human rights, and as the highest source of law in the country, acts to protect the rights of all citizens.

The existence of human rights protections in the Constitution has not stopped waves of critics arguing that human rights are a Western invention and not applicable to the Indonesian context. It is however an argument that is losing momentum and popularity as ever more public figures and organizations traditionally opposed the concept started to adopt human rights terminology to further their respective political goals and add weight to their arguments.

These adopted human rights are not necessarily the same human rights championed by the United Nations, or understood by most of the world. At times, it is essentially a hijacking; an adoption of the term without the necessary understanding of the underlying concepts or awareness of the universality of the principles.

Recent years have seen increasing numbers of representatives from community organizations put forth the somewhat confusing argument (an argument that is however, gaining traction) that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are violating human rights, because the existence of such people could lead to the extinction of humanity through a halt in procreation. This is one baffling argument for anybody that has the smallest understanding of human rights principles, but not the only baffling argument that is currently popular among groups manipulating notions of human rights.

Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) is in the process of selecting new commissioners who will lead the institution for the next five years. There are currently 28 hopefuls who have passed the first three selection stages, having been narrowed down from hundreds of candidates.

The Coalition to Save Komnas HAM – formed by Indonesian nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups – has been monitoring the selection process and carrying out an independent evaluation of the candidates and their human rights credentials.

The coalition notes that of the 28 candidates who have passed stage three of the selection process, four have problems with issues of intolerance, including being affiliated with Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and having participated in last year's mass rallies led by hardline Islamic groups, including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), to demand the jailing of then-Jakarta governor, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, for blasphemy.

Natalius Pigai, a current Komnas HAM commissioner, has publicly stated that it is natural that there are candidates from radical groups, and because Indonesia is a diverse country, national institutions such as Komnas HAM should reflect that diversity by encompassing commissioners from all backgrounds, including radical religious backgrounds.

That an active commissioner thinks religious radicals should be represented in the national human rights commission is another common source of bewilderment and anger for human rights activists across the country, who are currently experiencing division in their ranks.

The planned disbandment of HTI – a hardline Islamic organization that rejects democracy and calls for the creation of a global Islamic caliphate ruled by shariah – has recently been a major source of division among human rights activists. Since May, the government has voiced plans to disband the group – a move that has been welcomed by vast swathes of Indonesian moderates whilst being decried by some human rights activists.

On July 12, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo signed a government regulation in lieu of law that will officially allow the disbandment of organizations considered to contravene the state ideology of Pancasila. It is expected that HTI will be the first organization ordered to disband. There are fears that the regulation may be used to attack and weaken the government’s opposition in the lead-up to the 2019 presidential election.

On one hand, organizations such as HTI are a major source of religious intolerance that act to threaten and damage the diverse fabric of Indonesian society, while on the other hand, the authoritarian disbandment of community organizations without due process is reminiscent of former President Suharto's New Order regime and some people contend, a violation of civil and political rights.

It is clear that Indonesia is in crisis. The data shows that from year to year, acts of intolerance and attacks on minorities are increasing. Human rights activists continue to be divided into camps that support intolerant groups' rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and those who support the disbandment of such groups in the name of protecting minority rights.

The infallibility of human rights is not absolute. There is a long-standing debate about at what point the state can justifiably limit human rights.  A widely accepted, though vague contention, is that the rights of individuals should be protected to the extent that they do not, through exercising these rights, infringe on or limit the human rights of others. A classic example is how the right to freedom of expression may be limited if the expression is deemed hate speech.

Activists defending the right of intolerant groups to be intolerant is a paradox of tolerance. Through their emphasis on the overarching need for tolerance, these activists allow intolerant groups to gain prominence in society; these same groups then act to damage and limit pluralism and tolerance in the community.

Human rights is not a new concept in Indonesia and contrary to popular belief, it is not a concept imported from the West. But human rights are facing several new challenges across the archipelago, including an attempted hijacking of the term by certain parties and this paradox of intolerance.

The question remains whether human rights in Indonesia can bounce back from this attempted hijacking and whether the division in the ranks of activists can be rectified as the nation heads into an uncertain future, and towards what is shaping up to be a vicious 2019 presidential election.

Jack Britton is a writer and volunteer currently residing in Jakarta. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Jakarta Globe. For inquiries, contact: