The rights of all Indonesians are at greater risk following a Constitutional Court ruling this week that the central government could no longer repeal local Sharia (Islamic law) ordinances adopted in the country.

In recent years, the government had begun analyzing local regulations for compliance with Indonesia’s secular constitution, and pledged to repeal those that didn’t. “I want to underline that Indonesia is not a religiously-based country,” the home affairs minister said in 2015. But the government was tepid in its approach, steering clear of controversy by leaving Sharia ordinances intact.

A sharia police officer escorts women caught wearing tight pants during a street raid in Arongan Lambalek district in Indonesia's Aceh province on May 26, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

What a missed opportunity.

The Constitutional Court on Wednesday deprived the Home Ministry of the power to abolish problematic local regulations – depriving the government of a check on those ordinances that threaten universal rights to freedom of expression and association. It also exposes the failure of the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to turn its rhetoric about scrapping laws that flagrantly violate the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people into reality.

While Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo claimed to have annulled more than 3,000 problematic local ordinances in 2015 and 2016, he later conceded that those eliminated only impacted investment and did not include abusive Sharia regulations. Those canceled were “problematic regional regulations” for violating the country’s credo of “unity in diversity,” not regulations that violated fundamental rights.

Now, after years of central government foot-dragging, the Constitutional Court has ruled that the central government cannot revoke any of those local ordinances. 

President Jokowi has said that he respects the court’s judgment, adding that he’ll find other ways to improve investment. But he will also need to explain how he’ll protect threatened minorities from abusive Sharia ordinances. Lawsuits challenging the regulations can still be appealed to the Supreme Court, Indonesia’s highest court. Currently two men in Aceh are awaiting a public flogging sentence for homosexuality under local Sharia-inspired laws. The court ruling does not let Jokowi off the hook for failing to uphold Indonesia’s international legal obligations.

Jokowi will need, for the first time, to demonstrate real leadership against a rising tide of intolerance in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Minorities in Indonesia under threat of abusive Sharia statutes need a decisive signal from the president that he will ensure that “unity in diversity” extends to all Indonesians.