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Indonesia’s government is preparing to lift the lid on decades of gross human rights violations whose victims have gone without redress and whose perpetrators have never been brought to justice. 

But there are already serious questions about whether the government will empower the proposed “reconciliation commission” to pursue the minimum standard of acceptable justice: criminal accountability.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is expected to unveil details of the proposed Reconciliation Commission in his Aug. 14 State of the Nation address. Such a commission, first mooted on May 22 by Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo, would be composed of representatives of the Attorney General’s Office and the National Commission on Human Rights. 

The commission’s mission is to seek a “permanent solution for all unresolved human rights abuses” of the past half century. 

That’s a tall order. The short list of abuses that Prasetyo said the commission would focus on starts chronologically with the massacres of 1965-1966 that killed up to 1 million people. 

The victims included members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), ethnic Chinese, as well as trade unionists, teachers, civil society activists and leftist artists. In the half century since the mass killings, the Indonesian government has repeatedly sought to justify them as a necessary defense against the PKI. 

Other atrocities on the commission’s task list include the Trisakti and Semanggi 1 and 2 incidents of 1998 in which unknown gunmen killed unarmed peaceful protesters, an attack by alleged security forces on Wasior, Papua, in 2001 and a campaign of extrajudicial killings linked to security forces between 1982 and 1985 known as the Petrus shootings.

To date, the government has provided few details of the commission’s precise objectives or the resources it plans to allocate it to achieve those goals — but it has already indicated that the commission will not conduct investigations into specific incidents. 

On May 13 Attorney General Office’s spokesman Tony Tribagus Spontana said the government was opting for a “reconciliation process” as a means to get “away from the shackles of so-called investigations which will likely bring us to blame one another”. 

Spontana hinted that the commission would instead focus on compensating victims through an as-yet-unspecified “proper settlement mechanism”.

Providing compensation or other forms of redress to victims of grave human rights violations is necessary, but it’s only a small fraction of what is needed to obtain justice and achieve longer-term reconciliation.

Nor is it enough to simply uncover the “truth”, as important as that may be. Finding out what happened can fill crucial gaps in a society’s understanding of its past and help direct a future path. 

But unless those responsible for the injustices of the past are fully and fairly held accountable for their actions, the wrong message will be sent to prospective perpetrators of future crimes. 

Instead of replacing an accountability mechanism, a reconciliation commission empowered to address rights abuses of the scale and severity of those in Indonesia over the past 50 years should pave the way for prosecution of those most responsible. 

The proposed commission in Indonesia therefore has the potential to be a much-needed step on the long road to justice, but only if its structure, procedures and practices are consistent with human rights standards. 

The government’s approach thus far has not inspired a lot of confidence: a coalition of Indonesian civil society organizations and family members of victims of past atrocities have already criticized the proposed reconciliation commission as no more than an “effort to preserve impunity”.

As truth mechanisms in other countries have made clear, there is no precise recipe for achieving a rights-compliant and effective process, but there are at least three critical ingredients: independence, impartiality and transparency. 

The civil society reaction thus far suggests that the government has a long way to go. 

Any credible truth and reconciliation commission should operate independently from the government. Efforts by the executive to interfere in the commission’s work — which can take many forms, including efforts to manipulate its budget — could be a death sentence for the commission’s credibility. 

Impartiality is similarly non-negotiable. Efforts to frame the mandate in a way that only takes the views of one side, for example, would at best deliver a skewed version of events. A one-sided version of the truth risks exacerbating, rather than easing, tensions. 

Transparency is vital to foster national ownership over the commission’s work. Broad consultation with civil society and other key stakeholders at all stages will be essential. 

There should be clear, objective criteria to appoint commissioners, the commissioners should reflect the broader society at large, including those victimized, and their appointment should be subject to public confirmation hearings. The commission’s findings should be public. 

There are practical considerations as well. Witnesses may need protection because of their participation in the process. 

And those responsible for past abuses, who provide statements, should be granted some protection, although these should not be confused with immunities or amnesties, which are inconsistent with international law. 

President Jokowi has an opportunity to start the process of bringing meaningful justice to Indonesia’s huge numbers of victims of rights violations. 

Ensuring that the reconciliation commission is poised to announce that has the potential to be a historic step in that direction.

But the government would do well to remember that reconciliation will not come from a one-sided version of the truth. 

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