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The real test of Indonesia's commitment to ending impunity

UCA News - September 7, 2023

Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso – Indonesia has declared Sept. 7 this year as "Human Rights Defenders' Protection Day." Nineteen years ago, Munir Said Thalib – Indonesia's staunchest human rights defender – was assassinated on a Garuda flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam via Singapore with a lethal dose of arsenic, which was allegedly strong enough to kill two elephants.

On this day, however, truth and justice in this case remain elusive as Indonesia, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), concludes the 43rd Summit of this regional bloc.

Almost two decades since the treacherous assassination, the clamor for truth and justice at the national, regional, and international levels, however, has failed to ferret out the truth and bring justice to Munir.

As we near the second decade anniversary of this case that shocked the international community, Indonesia should never again miss the opportunity to become an example in the fight against impunity.

Sharing her thoughts on the eve of the 19th anniversary of the assassination, Suciwati, Munir's widow minced no words and said, "Impunity remains a pressing issue of this regime. Concerns about accountability and justice prevail. False promises were made. In 2016, Jokowi [Indonesian president Joko Widodo] ordered the attorney general to resolve the case but the outcome was marred by the loss of crucial documents, raising doubts about the government's sincerity in resolving the matter.

This situation underscores the imperative for transparency and accountability in addressing human rights violations," she said.

"Jokowi's government has appointed individuals allegedly involved in crimes against humanity. Deeply concerning is the appointment as presidential adviser [of] Hendropriyono, a suspect in the Munir murder case. This raises alarm about the future of human rights defenders. It sends a chilling message that those implicated in such cases may not face appropriate consequences but could instead be rewarded with positions of influence. It brings dark implications on the work of human rights defenders," she continued.

On the day before his departure to the Netherlands, I had the opportunity to speak to the soft-spoken Munir, then chairman of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), of which I was then secretary-general.

Never did Munir or I know that our plan to meet in Geneva to attend the September 2004 session of the inter-sessional working group to draft a legally binding normative instrument for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance would not be realized. This said body drafted what is now the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

I made it to the session but only to break the news about Munir's assassination.

During the session, members of the former UN Commission on Human Rights (now the UN Human Rights Council), who were part of the drafting body, discussed the possible inclusion of a new right to be incorporated in the draft convention, such as the right of families of the disappeared to form associations.

This proposed provision was fiercely opposed by states, especially Asian ones, which I recall were China and India among others. The proliferation of new rights was seen as redundant by some states. Amidst the refusal of states to include such a provision, I took the floor.

I intervened and shared about Suciwati's precarious situation as she had received a box with a dead chicken from an unknown sender with a letter threatening her. It said she would be like the dead chicken if she pursued her search for truth and justice about her husband's killing.

After that intervention, no state questioned the proposed provision anymore. That intervention contributed to the inclusion of Article 24, Paragraph 7 of the present treaty which provides: "Each State Party shall guarantee the right to form and participate freely in organizations and associations concerned with attempting to establish the circumstances of enforced disappearances and the fate of disappeared persons, and to assist victims of enforced disappearance."

Such provision is a fitting tribute to Munir.

One of the core international human rights treaties, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, was signed by Indonesia on Sept. 27, 2010.

Only an initial step, the signing of the convention has, despite incessant campaigning of civil society organizations, never been followed by ratification.

The commitment of Indonesia to become a state party to this treaty – which provides, among others, the right to truth and the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearances – remains an empty promise. Doing so could have facilitated the prevention of cases of enforced disappearances from recurring in a country whose history is stained by crimes against humanity and could have paved the way to attaining at least some of the key elements of transitional justice.

The robust civil society movement in Southeast Asia has recently concluded the 2023 ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples' Forum held in Jakarta from Sept 1 to 3, in which I participated.

In its concluding statement, the conference urged ASEAN leaders to "amplify efforts in addressing human rights abuses, in particular the grave human rights violations in the region, and to ensure effective remedies that align with international human rights standards and customary law."

The case of Munir is certainly a grave human rights violation that has to be, once and for all, resolved without further delay.

The resolution and closure of the assassination of Munir is a test of Indonesia's commitment to putting an end to the cycle of impunity – a commitment that should be reflected in the ASEAN post-2025 Vision.

Time is of the essence. The chair of ASEAN may not pass this way again. It must declare Munir's case as a grave violation of human rights and must resolve the case now.

Otherwise, as new violations of human rights defenders continue to be perpetrated in Indonesia, other Southeast Asian countries, and the world over, these abominable transgressions against human rights defenders are doomed to be repeated.

This year, the community of nations is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Indonesia's most-awaited and decisive resolution on the assassination of Munir is its most fitting way to commemorate these international events and a very meaningful homage to Munir and all human rights defenders. Such a resolution will make Indonesia a paragon in the fight against impunity.

During Munir's burial in Malang, his two children were very small. Diva Suukyi Larasati was only two years old and Soultan Alif Allende was only five. Time flew. Growing up without a father, they are now in their 20s. With their mother, they deserve to witness the dawning of truth and justice for their father whom they will always be proud of, but whom they never had and will never ever have the opportunity to know.

[The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News. Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso a human rights activist, is the executive director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a network of 85 organizations across 23 countries. Based in Manila, Aileen is best known for highlighting enforced disappearances and has received several human rights awards at home and abroad, including the Emilio F. Mignone International Human Rights Prize and the Franco-German Ministerial Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law. She is also a lecturer at the University of the Philippines' Asian Center.]

Source: https://www.ucanews.com/news/the-real-test-of-indonesias-commitment-to-ending-impunity/10252