Humans, regardless of their social, economic and ethnic background, hold in high esteem justice, dignity and freedom from persecution, and Papuans, who have faced decades of rights violations, are no exception. Such was the story Amnesty International Asia-Pacific program director Sam Zarifi told during a recent interview with The Jakarta Post’s Mariel Grazella. Sam was visiting Jakarta to discuss human rights in Papua with Coordinating Legal, Political and Security Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto.
Question: How did the meeting with the minister come to be?
Answer: The meeting was really at the invitation of President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono, who suggested publicly that the government should meet with Amnesty International.
That was an important step because for years now we have not been talking to the Indonesian government about Papua. [Papua] was almost a word that we could not use in government meetings.
The meeting yesterday [Dec. 6] was really between the coordinating minister and his immediate deputies who are involved with the situation in Papua.
What topics were laid out during the discussion?
The focus was absolutely on Papua. I think that the minister was anxious to convey the Indonesian government’s position in Papua by explaining that there was a new approach in the administration’s mind towards Papua, and that the administration was stepping away from a military response and was looking at increased economic development as well as political development.
It was a positive meeting in that Amnesty International was also able to raise its own points — including criticisms of the government — very, very openly. The coordinating minister did not respond by being defensive.
On what points did both sides agree?
There were some essentially practical issues, for instance the 2001 Law on Special Autonomy, which Amnesty International believes has some good provisions. And I think the administration also understands that the failure to implement that law has resulted in some problems.
I think it was important for us to point out that there were important human rights provisions in that law that have also not been implemented that would have been very helpful, specifically the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission and the creation of a human rights court to deal with the situation in Papua.
Amnesty International pointed out that some of the disciplinary measures enacted by the government in response to human rights violations had been disproportionately low and I think the coordinating minister could not factually disagree with that.
Did any disagreements issue forth as well?
An important issue for us is the release of political prisoners held in Papua and Maluku. The coordinating minister explained that he understood that perhaps the international standards of freedom of expression were somewhat different from the law currently in practice in Indonesia regarding free expression.
He suggested that the government would be implementing the laws as they are but we pointed that from a legal point of view the implementation was a violation of Indonesia’s international legal obligations and that the existence of political prisoners in Indonesia at this point simply hurts the country’s global standing.
There are local rights group that have adamantly campaigned for Papuans. How do you compare your role, as an international rights group, with theirs?
We think we are a force-multiplier for the local groups that work with us, and we can use our international standing to raise the issues that those groups raise with us.
Amid all the other rights abuse that happens in Indonesia, why has Papua caught special attention from the Western world?
There are around 90 political prisoners in Papua.
I think it is unacceptable to have political prisoners in Indonesia and I think some of that international attention reflects that fact.
I think the international community expects Indonesia, which is hosting the Bali process and casting itself properly as a regional and global leader on human rights, to set things right in its own backyard.
However, international leaders have not pursued the Indonesian government with full steam in resolving the issues in Papua. Could this be due to the vested economical interest certain countries have in Papua?
There’s definitely room for the international community to point out the anomaly of having political prisoners in Indonesia.
On the international stage, there’s a tendency to value short-term benefits and specifically, economical benefits or military advantages over respect for human rights. This is in our view a very short-sighted approach.
Overall, improved respect for human rights and rule of law, we think, has clear benefits for global relations, the economy and security situations.
And how do you rate the speed at which the government is tackling rights issues in Papua, given that these issues have become worse over the decades?
Every day that the government does not concretely improve the human rights situation, there is a waste of a day. That is absolutely clear.
There is a sense of urgency with conditions in Papua. The government feels the pressure, internationally, and most importantly, internally. So, there’s absolutely no justification in delaying human rights improvement.
The term of this administration will end by 2014. How optimistic are you that a good chunk of the problems will have been resolved by then?
The legal obligations are not political. Demand for respect for freedom of expression is something that different administrations or political groups can or cannot accept as a political expedience. Indonesia has signed and ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It’s an international obligation, so in a sense we hope and believe that this is a non-political issue.