Yudhoyono's hypocrisy in U-turn on death penalty

Dave McRae says Yudhoyono's record does not support a reputation for being progressive

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 11:26am

Indonesia's execution this month of narcotics convict Adami Wilson further tarnishes President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's human rights record. It reflects hypocrisy on the part of Yudhoyono, whose government continues to advocate for all Indonesians facing possible execution abroad.

Wilson, a Malawi national, was the first prisoner to be executed in Indonesia since 2008. His death should spur a more measured international appraisal of Yudhoyono, as a leader who has repeatedly shrunk from progressive reform during his second term.

On a series of human rights issues, Yudhoyono has flirted with a progressive stance, before failing to deliver. He has not apologised to victims of past human rights abuses, a plan publicised by an adviser last year. Nor has Yudhoyono invested the same political capital into efforts to resolve conflict in Papua as he did for Aceh in 2005. Yudhoyono has also allowed attacks on minority groups to proceed essentially unchecked, despite assurances that his government is serious about preventing violent religious intolerance.

On capital punishment too, rather than guide Indonesia to abolition despite public support for the death penalty, Yudhoyono has now reverted to the pattern of his first term. Then, he presided over 16 executions, more than double all of Indonesia's other democratic-era presidents combined.

Shortly before this reversion, Indonesia had significantly shifted its stance on capital punishment. In November, it abstained in the UN General Assembly vote to call for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, after opposing previous resolutions.

Yudhoyono also reversed previous rhetoric and practice to grant clemency. He had granted clemency to four narcotics death row inmates, in decisions that became public late last year.

Admittedly, Yudhoyono's clemency decisions triggered a backlash. Wilson's execution, and at least nine others slated for this year, are the culmination of that backlash.

Ironically, the main factor that appeared to shift Indonesia's position has not gone away. Despite resuming executions, Indonesia continues to advocate for around 200 Indonesians facing the death penalty abroad. Indonesia thus opposes the death penalty for all its citizens abroad, regardless of their crime, but continues to apply capital punishment domestically.

Despite these irreconcilable positions and his other human rights failures, Yudhoyono continues to enjoy a stellar reputation outside Indonesia, along with generous international praise.

It is time to bring Yudhoyono's reputation into line with the reality of his record.

Dr Dave McRae is a research fellow in the East Asia Programme at the Lowy Institute for International Policy

Correction: an earlier version of the story carried a wrong photo of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.