Human rights in 2009: Year of forced choice

Human rights in 2009: Year of forced choice

Kontras
Usman Hamid

2009 will be the year of politics -- electoral politics to be precise. Thus, when one attempts to speculate on the human rights situation next year, the result will probably take a very political slant. Human rights will be positioned against the backdrop of a turbulent political struggle for legislative and executive power, the result of which will determine the future direction of the protection of human rights.

Furthermore, 2009 has been marked down as the year of global economic recession. Thus, as well as being dependent on the transition of domestic power, the human rights situation will also be heavily determined by the global financial crisis and the food, clean water and energy shortages, all of which have the potential to trigger drawn out conflicts.

What can be done in this kind of environment? Not many options will be available; indeed, it will be difficult for us to determine our own hopes and choices and most probably we will have to choose among options that are not appealing to begin with -- a forced choice.

During this first decade of reform, there has been a shift in the approach to human rights, from the politics of redistributive justice to recognition politics. The first prioritizes the public interest and political substance as the basic struggle. The objective of the second is to promote identity antagonism, which erodes justice in political and economic distribution, such as in the relationship between laborers and their employers in terms of workers' rights, or farmers and landowners in terms of agricultural reform, or the issue of the poor in terms of development and gross human rights violations during the Soeharto era. These were the issues that triggered the 1998 reform, but more recently they have come to be neglected.

2008 saw a slight opening of the window of opportunity. Victims of gross human rights violations met with the President, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, the justice and human rights minister, the Cabinet secretary, the foreign minister and even the defense minister. The President has also opened the Witness and Victim Protection Institution.

Unfortunately, the measures that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the current special committee of the House of Representatives (Pansus Orang Hilang) dealing with the case of enforced disappearances in 1997-1998 have taken in resolving gross human rights violations have been seen as efforts to create a good political image in the lead-up to the 2009 elections or to weaken political rivals who were involved in gross human rights violations.

These accusations could have been dismissed as groundless if law enforcement agencies and relevant ministers took a firm stance. Instead, some ministers have been too busy advertising themselves politically. They have been promoting the performances of their respective ministries, while inserting their own profiles for their own political interests, as if they fear being left behind by other candidates or parties. These promotional activities are clearly for political interests, because indeed the success of a ministry cannot be demonstrated through advertisements colored by pomp and makeup.

A simple example of the paradigm shift in human rights during the past year is the enactment of legislation based on religious-moral grounds such as the anti-pornography law or the declaration of individuals or groups as heretical -- which triggered violence -- and even the promotion of family values in political campaigns.

When the pornography bill was in the deliberation stage, the central issue in the debate was not about how serious the government was in tackling the problem or how effective the law would be in dismantling the pornography industry. Rather, it was about how virtuous people were. In other words, if one was to be considered devout and moral, then one would support the bill's enactment.

This is a dangerous shift. In various political contests, it is as if religious symbols have become the yardstick for measuring someone's suitability to be elected into a leadership position. In anticipation of the 2009 elections, public relations consultancies have helped the development of the mass media industry escalate to extreme proportions.

Political figures and alleged criminals have been turned into idols. Parties with no clear political track record suddenly emerge out of nowhere as icons of the Great Indonesian Dream. One party, formerly known for its self-proclaimed status as clean, caring and anti-corruption, suddenly put out an advertisement naming the world's most corrupt leader as one of the nation's heroes.

In another corner one can see individuals who have been named as opponents of human rights emerge as civilized intellectuals, competing in the political race by donning a new mask, such as fighter for humanity or defender of the poor.

Officially the general election has not started, but apparently in reality it is well under way, if prematurely. All the players in the next general election have started the race for gaining the most sympathy and votes. They do so by applying heavy proverbial makeup and proclaiming lip-service pledges. Their financial resources to do so seem to be boundless.

The advertising and campaign consultants know what to do and how to do it well. All the political advertisements have been scripted and produced in cinematographic quality, specifically designed to portray a certain image. Is it true that such and such a person has this particular national economic program? The advertisements offer no clarification. Advertisements in the business world often serve more as a feel-good lie rather than a means of educating consumers. This is also the case with political advertisements. At the end of the day they diminish further the substance of democracy.

The serious repercussions of this approach to politics is that the whole process fails to yield a political leader who is genuinely struggling for politics as a virtue. This is the shape of things to come in 2009 from the perspective of domestic politics.

As 2009 is going to be the year of global recession, the increase in the number of workers subject to mass layoffs across the world will be a specific and serious issue for human rights protection in Indonesia. The drop in the average income will cost many people their basic rights, such as the right to an adequate livelihood and even the right to work.

Furthermore, the struggle for the increasingly limited resources of food, clean water and energy -- all forecast to be in crisis next year -- can trigger conflict and violence. It is the global hope that this serious problem will not meet a dead end and that the election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president can bring about economic recovery in the United States, in turn bringing about the recovery of the global financial system.

The world's political environment next year will likely be dominated by the tensions resulting from identity politics. Aside from territorial invasions over energy sources, the Mumbai attacks have driven a deeper wedge between Islam and the West.

The present antagonism seems to ignore other possible motives. It is as if the complexity of Indian domestic politics can be simply explained away by the terrorist inclinations of al-Qaeda. In truth, however, a genuine solution to this problem will require international and interfaith dialogues.

Against this backdrop, what is the best approach for the protection of human rights? Where does human rights protection fit in the 2009 political matrix? There will be more than 30 political parties competing in the general election, but how many of those will include human rights protection on the national agenda and in their plans for future reform?

2009 will be a year of dilemmas. We will have to choose from unacceptable choices. This is the logical consequence of impunity. Legal procedures and mechanisms have been sabotaged to ensure failure in bringing to justice those responsible for the gross human rights violations in East Timor and the various other crimes in Indonesia's history. The appearance of the alleged perpetrators on the stage for the upcoming general elections seems to throw more whitewash over actions that have been proclaimed as criminal under international human rights law.

The political stage has become an arena for the idols. It is no wonder the prospective number of nonvoters has increased. This is the political phenomenon of voters protesting by silence, because the voice of the voters will remain unheard by the candidates. Yet if this continues unchecked, the result is political death. Politics will no longer be discussed within a substantive framework.

It is hard not to be skeptical in the face of these trends. Should human rights activists raise funds so they can produce advertisements to compete with those of the political candidates? If that is the arena where the contest is to be played out, the human rights community is guaranteed to lose. Perhaps we need to cast a nostalgic eye to the past, looking at what we did before the reform, in the era when the discourse of human rights was developed as part of discussions geared toward redistributive justice rather than identity politics.

Although the situation is political, hope prevails. For example, promoting various human rights platforms to all political parties could lead to breakthroughs. Another measure that could be taken is to promote the establishment of a Pro Human Rights Parliament Caucus.

The idea for this caucus took root after a number of prominent candidates joined the election. It is not easy for them to determine the stance their parties will take. Yet it is not impossible to establish a multiparty human rights caucus to ensure the parliament will be more sensitive to human rights protection.

This can also be directed toward the struggle at the parliament level to ensure a government Cabinet that is pro-human rights. Whoever the next president and vice president turn out to be, whether or not their Cabinet is pro-human rights will be reflected in the composition of the ministers appointed, especially for the positions closely related to law enforcement and human rights, namely the justice and human rights minister, the attorney general and the National Police chief.