University of Indonesia ( UI ) has come under a storm of protests for awarding an honorary doctorate to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a leader whose commitment to human rights has been seriously questioned by labor activists.
The award came just two months after the beheading of Ruyati binti Satubi, an Indonesian maid who was convicted for murdering her employer — a crime she allegedly committed in response to repeated torture.
For years, international human rights organizations have criticized Saudi Arabia for its treatment of migrant workers. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report notes that domestic workers from Indonesia “frequently endure forced confinement, food deprivation and severe psychological, physical and sexual abuse”.
There are an estimated 1.5 million Indonesian maids currently working in the kingdom, with 23 on death row.
Several non-governmental organizations ( NGO ) concerned with migrant worker issues, including Migrant Care, Jala PRT, the Indonesian Women’s Coalition and renowned UI scholars such as Effendy Ghazali and Thamrin Amal Tomagola, came to the House of Representatives, demanding that lawmakers summon UI executives — rector Gumilar Rusliwa Somantri in particular.
Gumilar awarded the degree on Sunday to the king at Al-Safa Palace. Gumilar was quoted by news portal arabnews.com as saying that the degree was awarded to appreciate the King’s efforts in promoting moderate Islamic teachings, supporting peace in Palestine and promoting interfaith dialogue.
“The university appreciates the King’s humanitarian efforts and his endeavors to promote science and technology,” said Gumilar.
Migrant Worker director Anis Hidayah said that the Saudi king did not deserve such an award because the country “never appreciated human rights principles, especially for the migrant workers”.
Anis said that the UI rector had failed to show sensitivity or sympathy for what the workers have suffered. “The award is very inappropriate.”
Sociologist Thamrin Amal Tomagola of UI said that the award “insulted the university’s reputation”.
Thamrin said that Gumilar did not follow the proper mechanisms for granting an honorary doctorate. Thamrin said that all honorary doctorate candidates should be examined and assessed by the Honorary Doctorate Committee. “I have confirmed with the Professors Council. None of them knew about the award,” he said.
Controversy over the award is not new, as recipients include other controversial figures, such as the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and the former president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Il-sung.
UI spokesperson Devi Rahmawati said the university would not give any press statements before Gumilar returned to Indonesia. “The university rector will only give the official statement related to the honorary doctorate after returning to Jakarta,” she said.
“All statements from UI professors do not represent the university administration,” she added.
Ties between the Saudi Arabian government and the university were cemented in 2009 when the country granted Rp 13 billion ( US$1.44 million ) for the construction of Attauhid Arif Rahman Hakim mosque at the main UI campus in Salemba, Jakarta.
UI’s official website, www.ui.ac.id, reported that the construction of the mosque cost Rp 16 billion. The university administration, the Jakarta administration and the alumni all donated Rp 1 billion, respectively.
House Commission IX member Irgan Chaerul Mahfiz said that his commission would summon Gumilar to seek clarification.
He said that the House members would ask the rector to withdraw the award if he failed to explain “the proper and acceptable, including academic, reasons”, he said.
“I think the university has neglected the bitter facts of Saudi Arabia’s abusive actions against our migrant workers,” he said. ( lfr )