On Wednesday and Thursday, 60 commissioner candidates for the next National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) take part in a public dialogue, as part of their selection process. The selection committee will pick 14 candidates, before the legislature chooses seven commissioners for the 2017-2022 period.
Founded 14 years ago, in the twilight of Soeharto’s New Order, one senses apathy about the human rights body, the second established in Southeast Asia following that of the Philippines.
In the first years skepticism was high; Komnas HAM was formed after global outrage at the 1991 Santa Cruz shootings in Dili, the capital of today’s Timor Leste. However, the first commission headed by retired military officer and Supreme Court justice Ali Said soon became “a thorn in the side of the regime,” researchers wrote.
Commissioners managed to create some independent space and deliver reports such as that regarding the May 1998 riots, which was regarded as extraordinary as the military, which still included the police, had never faced criticism from a state body outside its control.
Ironically the commission’s credibility declined after Soeharto stepped down, even as more activists became members. Even a special law on Komnas HAM did not help boost its effectiveness. Despite the commission needing to speak with one voice in spite of differences, rifts became apparent.
Nonetheless the commission remained among the few beacons of hope in the fledgling democracy. It continued to push for investigations into violations of human rights and in 2012 issued the first independent state report on “gross human rights violations” of the 1965-1966 era, marked by the killing and witch hunt of alleged communist supporters in the political turmoil that led to the 32 years of Soeharto’s rule.
The least effective commissioners were probably the last group; a selection committee member expressed regret that Komnas HAM had reached “its nadir.” Not long after their inauguration five years ago, reports emerged of commissioners squabbling over their entitlement to vehicles. Apart from financial irregularities, they issued the unprecedented policy of rotating the chairmanship annually, instead of the previous two-and-a-half years, with no other visible measure of increasing their effectiveness. This policy must end.
The next commission must restore credibility, made worse by budget misuse. Despite apathy, the continuing impunity for unresolved cases and heightened political tension starkly demonstrates the need for a much better human rights body, as victims find their voices drowned in various disputes. Land conflicts remain rampant, for instance.
Indonesia, despite the mixed record of its human rights body, remains a benchmark for Southeast Asia. There is much room for improvement; even though most perpetrators have been acquitted the commission managed to establish ad-hoc human rights trials for the cases of shootings in Abepura in Papua, Tanjung Priok in North Jakarta and the former East Timor. Human rights training for police and military also started under previous commissions.
Among other resources for improvement, its neighbor, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), could provide inspiration regarding, apparently, greater effectiveness and less squabbling.