Opinion

Collective and collegial
leadership: Komnas HAM
and the way forward

Over the last few days, there has been a debate over the National Commission on Human Rights’ (Komnas HAM’s) plenary council decision to rotate the chairmanship annually throughout the 2012-2017 period. Prior to this decision, the chair and the two vice chairs were internally elected by commissioners for a period of two-and-a-half years.

The Coalition of Civil Society Organizations, for example, expressed concern and suspected that the
decision was made to accommodate the political interest of the military to exploit Komnas HAM for its own short-term benefit in the 2014 election. The coalition is suspicious that retired generals linked to past gross human rights violations have declared bids to contest the presidential election.

This controversy reminds me of Peter Drucker who said that the greatest challenge to any organization is the finding the balance between continuity and change. At different times, the balance is slightly more over here, or slightly more over there, but you need both. And balance is basically the greatest task in leadership.

Organizations have to have continuity, and yet if there are not enough new challenges and change, they become empty bureaucracies awfully fast.

The suspicion over the implications of Komnas HAM’s decision, to me, is very constructive, and reflective of the fact that this institution is home to all layers of society. Its control is vitally important for Indonesia as a young bureaucracy that has made a remarkable transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic system.

The reason to rotate the leadership simply put, is to first articulate a spirit of collectivity and collegiality. After two decades of its long journey through the centralized regime and the reform era, Komnas HAM remains unable to articulate this spirit in its operational landscape. Over the past 20 years, the symbol of Komnas HAM has been in the hand of its leader, not the system.

The two institutional engines within Komnas HAM operate in different ways. Internal structural bureaucracy, dominated by civil servants and with its strong structural orientation under the control of the secretary-general, serves mostly the interest of the chairperson. The spirit of collectivity and collegiality among the commissioners has greatly deteriorated.

The second reason for the rotation is that every year Komnas HAM receives at least 6,000 complaints related to cases of abuse of power and human rights violations involving the police, corporations and local authorities at the district or municipality level.

It is unwise to lay such an enormous burden on the shoulders of only a few commissioners.

Burdens, rights and responsibilities have to be distributed fairly, collectively and collegially. So, the 13 newly elected commissioners for the 2012-2017 term have made a historic choice to rotate the three chairmanship seats of among them annually by consensus, although four commissioners voted against the move.

To me, this type of leadership will strengthen the institution’s social cohesion because it upholds the principles of equality, justice, openness and harmony to carry out the commissioners’ mandate, rights and obligations. In this respect, Komnas HAM and civil society could hand-in-hand explore a number of lessons learned from other countries and institutions.

First, collective and collegial leadership is widely respected in Switzerland. Under the concept of primus inter pares, the Swiss president has no powers above other councilors.

Traditionally, the duty rotates among the members in order of seniority, and the previous year’s vice president becomes president. As the first among equals, the Federal Council member serving as president of the confederation is not considered the Swiss head of state. Rather, the entire Federal Council is considered a collective head of state.

Komnas HAM looks to emulate this approach. Segmented groupings, polarization of staff and fragmentation within the institution will automatically disappear as the system will control the entire mechanism. The chair is only the first among equals as it rotates annually.

This tradition will then isolate any potential conspiracy between the chair and the secretary-general in managing the institution.

Further, this tradition will also create greater transparency and constructive interaction between the two, while the structural bureaucracy will assist all commissioners without discrimination.

Second, collective and collegial leadership is highly respected in the UN system. For example, Indonesian Ambassador to the UN Makarim Wibisono in 2005 was appointed the chair of the UN Human Rights Commission.

The position, which lasts for one year, traditionally rotates among ambassadors of the five geographical groupings. This appears to be very effective in addressing various sensitive issues related to human rights promotion and protection across the globe.

There should be no worry that the rotating model will prevent Komnas HAM from fulfilling its mission as mandated by Law No. 39/1999 on human rights, Law No. 26/2000 on human rights courts and Law No. 40/2008 on the elimination of racial and ethnic discrimination.

The issue, indeed, is not the period of their service but how effectively the commissioners exercise their mandates.

Third, collective and collegial leadership is highly respected in ASEAN mechanisms. To accelerate the achievement of its vision toward a single community of nations by 2015, the chair of ASEAN is rotated among member states on an annual basis.

The chair of ASEAN in 2011 was Indonesia, followed by Cambodia in 2012 and this year, it is Brunei. The ASEAN Secretariat, based in Jakarta, coordinates, initiates and implements ASEAN activities.

This modality again appears to be very similar to the newly adopted management style of Komnas HAM, which collegially and collectively managed to achieve its mandate to promote and protect the human rights of all Indonesian citizens.

Finally, collective and collegial leadership could be an insightful solution for power sharing modes to move forward to a better Indonesia, free from dichotomy between Javanese and non-Javanese, majority and minority, and where all merge into solid form of social cohesion for a better Indonesia.

The writer is a member of the National Commission on Human Rights. The opinions expressed are personal.

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