University students gesture in front of police officers during a protest against the draft criminal code in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 24, 2019.

© 2019 Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

(Jakarta) – Indonesia faced serious threats to human rights in 2019 stemming from proposed laws restricting basic freedoms and deteriorating protections for marginalized groups, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

In April, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo won re-election in a presidential campaign that paid little attention to rights issues. In October, he appointed his opponent, Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo, as defense minister, despite Prabowo’s involvement in massacres in East Timor and other grave abuses over many years.

“Indonesia had been the good news story in Southeast Asia, but in the past year the human rights situation took a turn for the worse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Problematic new laws nearly passed, abusive old ones continue to be enforced, and minorities didn’t get the legal protection they need.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future. 

The parliament nearly passed a new criminal code that contains provisions that would violate freedom of speech and association, as well as the rights of women, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. In September, parliament passed a bill weakening Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission, making it harder to curtail political corruption.

During his state-of-the-union address, President Jokowi reiterated his support for Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila – a compromise made during the declaration of Indonesia’s independence in 1945 to avoid the idea of setting up an Islamic state – saying: “We will not compromise with members of the state apparatus who reject Pancasila.”

While meant to prevent discrimination against non-Muslim minorities in Indonesia, Pancasila has not prevented the government from enforcing laws and regulations that discriminate against non-Muslims. Among those are the 1965 blasphemy law, nearly always used against religious minorities, and the 2006 “religious harmony” regulation, which gives veto power on religious affairs to each area’s religious majority.

In 2019, Indonesian courts sentenced at least three non-Muslim women to prison for blasphemy. The Jokowi government proposed expanding the blasphemy law from one to six articles in the draft criminal code. Local authorities did little to stop Islamist militants from harassing non-Muslim, non-Sunni minorities. And LGBT people faced increasing violence, intimidation, and abusive police raids.

In August, racist taunts against Papuan students in Surabaya, Java, triggered larger demonstrations in Papua and West Papua provinces. At least 53 people, both Papuans and migrants from other parts of Indonesia, were killed in the ensuing clashes. Indonesian authorities shut down the internet in those areas. Police arrested hundreds of Papuans and have charged at least 42 people with treason, which carries a prison term of up to 20 years.

The Papua violence and the rushed criminal code amendments triggered the biggest nationwide protests in two decades, prompting Jokowi to delay parliamentary voting on the draft criminal code and three other bills until 2020.

The government failed to set dates for the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to visit Papua and West Papua, despite Jokowi’s 2018 invitation to the commissioner. 

“President Jokowi’s re-election could provide new opportunities to protect the human rights and freedoms of all Indonesians,” Adams said. “Unless the backsliding stops, Indonesia may face much bigger social and political crises.”