I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana – On 18 May 2021, Indonesia opposed a new UN General Assembly resolution to formally embrace the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The resolution would require annual reporting and debate on its implementation.
Officials from Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued that there is no urgency to reform R2P norms as the prevailing ones are sufficient. An Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesperson further clarified that Indonesia is not resisting R2P but would prefer to see its application improved rather than changed.
The vote associates Indonesia with the cluster of undemocratic states that have long opposed the United Nations being empowered to authorise intervention. Human rights and pro-democracy advocates are concerned about the Indonesian government's position. But foreign policy advisers of the presidential palace and senior diplomats are not engaged in the R2P discussion. This sends a message that the administration of President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo is not interested in an enhanced R2P.
This message is strengthened by a persistent ambivalence towards a human rights protection agenda in Indonesia's foreign policy. Indonesia maintains engagement with global norms and institutions governing humanitarian intervention, for instance through its active participation in UN peacekeeping operations. Yet when human rights violations take place at home, Jakarta will refuse foreign intervention. Recent examples include when Jokowi assigned his foreign minister to undertake intensive bilateral discussions with the Myanmar government to end military oppression against Rohingya Muslims, while Indonesian law enforcement agencies were not doing enough to stop the persecution of minority ethnic and religious groups at home.
While Indonesia has adopted treaties on individual civil and political rights, implementation requires they be adapted to local situations. For this reason, there has never been a convergence of the state's defined objective of human rights promotion and civil society activists' struggle for human rights protection. Nationalism and sovereignty explain this – these concepts inform the established perception among Indonesian elites that there is no merit to third party involvement in domestic conflict.
In general, Indonesian elites hold a sceptical view of the outside world. They maintain the old revolutionary nationalist worldview that international politics is dangerous and exploitative. Nationalists now regard norms and global institutions as concepts constructed by powerful states to serve their own interests. This pessimism is rationalised by military leaders and politicians in parliament. The factor accelerating this perception of threat is the loss of national territory, particularly after the independence of East Timor in 1999 which was made possible due to UN interventions backed by Western powers. The nationalist military figures around Jokowi are also worried about the possibility of foreign interference using instruments of international law.
Two examples of this are the trial on organised mass violence in East Timor following the defeat of the pro-integration camps and the International People's Tribunal investigation of the New Order government's involvement in the 1965 communist massacre. Even though these legal challenges do not threaten Jokowi's legitimacy, Jakarta's nationalist elites are influenced by anticipatory thinking that foreshadows the potential for foreign interference, most importantly in Papua.
The Indonesian conception of sovereignty is affected by this dominant nationalistic perspective. R2P conceptualises sovereignty as a responsibility of governments to fulfil primary functions, such as protecting citizens. Indonesian elites tend to view sovereignty as the absolute right of the sovereign to control the population and national territory. This interpretation of sovereignty is grounded in the integralist philosophical values of the 1945 constitution. Now it goes hand-in-hand with the growing trend of illiberalism in Indonesian politics.
Jokowi has not caved to international pressure to cancel the executions of drug dealers, an obvious example of his tight adherence to this latter form of state sovereignty. He believes the government knows the best way to secure ordinary citizens from the dangers of narcotics addiction. The latest escalation of violence in Papua is treated in the same way. This approach to security reflects the desire of conservative elites to retain state-centric rights. What falls by the wayside is the government's responsibility to resolve the human rights issues at the root of the prolonged separatist conflict in Papua.
Jakarta is confident in its decision to reject normative changes to R2P. The president and foreign policy bureaucrats understand that the public does not care about the significance of R2P. Indonesians are more attracted to issues directly related to their country's territorial integrity and national dignity. Internal conflicts are regarded as problems of the big Indonesian family, problems that others should not intervene in. This is why it is politically expedient for the Jokowi government to say no to the enhancement of R2P in the United Nations.
[I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana is a Senior Lecturer of International Relations and Director of Cakra Studi Global Strategis (CSGS) at Universitas Airlangga, Surabaya.]