Subject: JP: Truth, reconciliation pose a challenge for the government

February 21, 2005

Jakarta Post

Truth, reconciliation pose a challenge for the government

On Monday representatives of truth and reconciliation commissions from several countries will convene to share their experiences with Indonesia, that has only recently passed a law, long awaited, setting up such a commission. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Ifdhal Kasim, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM), who talked to The Jakarta Post's Muninggar Sri Saraswati.

Question: What is the purpose of the meeting of the Managers of Truth Commission Affinity Group (MTC), which will be held next week in Jakarta?

Answer: This meeting will be attended by members of truth commissions from several countries, such as Jorge Rolon Luna from Paraguay, Yasmin Sooka from South Africa, Javier Ciurlizza from Peru, Marcie Mersky from Guatemala, Father Matthew Kukah from Nigeria, Aniceto Gutteres Lopes from East Timor, Howard Varney from Sierra Leone as well as Indonesian officials, scholars and non-governmental organizations.

We hope it can provide a clear description on the work of truth commissions in other countries as well as to seek comprehensive solutions for gross violations of human rights cases around the world. We will also discuss the East Timor-Indonesia Truth and Friendship Commission and several important aspects involving truth commissions.

Could you explain the background of the establishment of the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation here?

Law No. 27/2004 on the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation is Indonesia's experimental response to a transitional political situation. Such a commission is usually a product of countries in a transitional period, from an authoritarian regime to a more democratic regime -- during which governments usually face public demands to explain past gross violations of human rights.

What is the importance of establishing such a commission?

Gross human rights violations that occurred during the period of an authoritarian regime must be settled by the next regime, which applies a democratic system. (If not) the cases will haunt the next regimes in developing democracy and national unity.

The commission will play an important role in revealing the truth, and offer substantive instead of political reconciliation, of rights violations in the past. Both victims or their families, alleged perpetrators and members of society in general, will find answers in their quest for truth.

Some 40 percent of the country's citizens are victims of various gross human rights violations, who have been seeking answers for years.

But why does the public seem indifferent to the issue of the establishment of the commission?

First, the issue less popular than that of corruption, collusion and nepotism (KKN) in the wake of reformasi. It was the issue of KKN that led to the fall of the New Order.

Our political elite, who rose in the transitional period, also mainly responded to this issue. Our president won the election by promising to eradicate KKN.

Second, the government and the legislature were very sluggish in drafting the law on the (truth) commission. Actually, the issue was earlier a public debate involving scholars, activists, victims and alleged perpetrators. But the authorities failed to respond to it quickly.

Third, the poor record of Indonesia's human rights tribunals had raised skepticism for a just settlement for cases of gross human rights violations.

Do you think the sluggishness in establishing the commission and the corresponding law was intentional?

It seems the political elite was reluctant to establish the commission quickly because one of its main tasks would be revealing the truth of gross rights violation cases that occurred under the New Order. It involved powerful people from the military, government and political parties; those who now hold power in the government, the House of Representatives and the Regional Representatives Council (DPD).

So do you think this government can meet the challenge of settling past gross violations of human rights?

Yes, provided it is determined to uphold the state's dignity. They must speed up the establishment of the commission by developing a conducive political atmosphere. They could start by establishing a credible committee to select commission members in a bid to set up a credible commission.

Each stage of the process must be transparent to gain public support. But then again, the government must understand that the commission's main duty is to make substantive reconciliation rather than political reconciliation.

We had high hopes when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called for reconciliation soon after he was elected president. Unfortunately, he was referring to reconciliation with his political competitors.

Are you sure the credibility of members of the commission will determine the credibility of the commission?

Obviously. If the commission consists of figures such as (Muhammadiyah chairman) Syafi'i Ma'arif, (Nahdlatul Ulama cleric) Sahal Mahfudz, (philosopher) Franz Magnis Suseno or (rights activist) Father Sandyawan or other credible figures, I am sure the commission will get public support. The opposite will happen if it consists of former officials of the New Order.

What kind of cases would the commission handle first?

The commission will not handle cases (on an individual basis) because its duties and authority are not the as that of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM). Its main task is to determine the general pattern of gross rights violations and deciding whether it is a result of the system or not. Members will decide to examine and probe several gross rights violations that occurred for a certain period before seeking to reveal the truth and set up a reconciliation process.

But the law says that if victims or their families refuse to pardon the alleged perpetrators in a certain case, the commission will not grant amnesty to the latter and hand over the case to the human rights tribunal.

That is a flaw along a number of others in the law. The government should start making some revisions to the law because the commission cannot work like Komnas HAM; otherwise there would be overlapping of duties. Actually, the commission could use investigation results by Komnas HAM in its examinations.

Do you think the commission can run well in Indonesia?

With regard to the law, I have two stances. First, I see an opportunity for credible members to sit in the commission, that hopefully will bring a good influence in terms of its performance and credibility.

Yet I also see that it may be extremely difficult for the commission to accomplish its mission in revealing the truth and setting up substantive reconciliation here because of several indications by the government's moves in establishing the commission.

One indication is that the government is responsible to inform the public about the law, but it has failed to do this. Second, the government has not been transparent in establishing the commission.

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