The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Indonesia’s ASEAN Chairmanship: Sustaining the Momentum on Human Rights?

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on January 27, 2011

With Indonesia assuming the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this month, the expectation is that Indonesia will try to gain some headway in advancing the regional human rights agenda. For many, Indonesia’s power vis-à-vis ASEAN lies in its soft power, in its legitimacy as a champion of rights and a defender of democracy. In contrast, the head of Amnesty International recently argued that persistent human rights concerns in Indonesia are likely to prevent the government from realizing its high aspirations of taking a lead on the global stage.

Alongside the democratisation process in Indonesia and the subsequent loosening of authoritarian control, Indonesia’s Pancasila ideology and its image as a bastion of pluralism have certainly come under threat in recent years. In late 2008, controversial Anti-Pornography legislation was passed to the lamentation of minority groups and liberal Muslims, who claimed that the law arbitrarily imposed Islamic values on the whole nation, curtailing civil liberties and denying minorities’ identities. Controversial legislation aside, there has been a perceptible increase in the number of assaults against religious minorities in recent months by Islamist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), in particular Christian groups and the Ahmadiyah religious community, decried by some Muslims as a cult. As the International Crisis Group recently pointed out however, fundamentalism is not restricted to Islamist groups in Indonesia, and tensions are increasingly exacerbated by evangelical Christian groups perceived to be behind a “Christianization” of Indonesia.

Growing religious intolerance is not the only serious human rights – and leadership – challenge confronting Indonesia (see Human Rights Watch’s 2011 World Report). In addition to poor protection for migrant workers and refugees, challenges to freedom of expression, and rising social intolerance (e.g. vis-à-vis sexuality and gender identity), impunity of security forces is a critical concern (brought to the fore again recently when three soldiers prosecuted for torturing two Papuan men received sentences of only 8 to 10 months for abuse and “insubordination”).

If Indonesia’s strength as a leader is seen to lie in its soft power and as a champion of people-centered policies, is its increasingly murky (or perhaps, increasingly accountable) human rights record likely to influence its ability to affect change within ASEAN, particularly when it comes to promoting its regional rights agenda?

At this stage, despite the expectations of a number of commentators, Indonesia’s domestic rights concerns do not appear to be factoring in to its neighbours’ perceptions of legitimacy. As Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya recently stated, ‘…the international community should learn from Indonesia. The principle of Pancasila is still applicable today, applicable for everyone…Indonesia is a country that demonstrates tolerance in every sense of the word’. For now, and from here, it appears that Indonesia’s success – for good or for worse – in moving the rights agenda forward in ASEAN will hinge more on its ability to achieve small, concrete gains – more so than the issue of rights or (in)tolerance within its own borders. Key tests will be its ability to consolidate achievements vis-à-vis the newly-established ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), and the adoption of an ASEAN human rights declaration in 2011 that at the very least, does not backtrack on successes already gained.


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