October 14, 2022
JAKARTA – It should not have come as a surprise that, in early October, Indonesia rejected a motion by the United States to hold a debate scrutinizing the alleged rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The government has maintained a consistent position on the Uyghur issue since 2019, when Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko stated that Indonesia would “not meddle in the internal affairs of China”, despite the many demonstrations local Muslim solidarity groups held outside the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta and its consulates across the nation.
Three years ago, Indonesia argued that its stance was based on its recognition of a country’s sovereign right to manage its own domestic affairs so they did not spill over into other countries and territories. Its trust in China’s ability to manage the issue was proven, as the country skillfully persuaded the public to temper pressures through dialogue and provided clarifying information.
This time around, Indonesia stood with 18 other members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR) against passing a draft resolution to hold “debate on the situation of human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region”. Meanwhile, 11 other states abstained with only 17 states voting in favor.
According to coverage of the meeting on UN Web TV, Indonesia’s position drew on its belief that debate would not yield meaningful progress, as China did not support the move.
While it voted against the motion, Indonesia then pledged to “promote and protect human rights, including in Xinjiang”, which seemed contradictory and could be perceived as stalling an open discussion on human rights.
However, holding a debate would not automatically grant rights to Uyghur Muslims and other minority groups. As such, Indonesia’s concern is a legitimate one: that debating the issue would only create another discussion that problematizes and corners China within the already highly tense dynamics between major world powers.
The Foreign Ministry had reached an understanding with other member states of both the OHCHR and the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to oppose the resolution, so the UN rights council did not exacerbate the existing rivalry between big powers, especially the US and China.
The OHCHR-OIC countries that voted against the resolution include Cameroon, Gabon, the Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan, while those that abstained include Benin, Gambia, Libya and Malaysia.
Granted, if promoting and protecting human rights are indeed Indonesia’s concern, the government needs to make efforts now to pursue them in ways that are productive and collaborative. The question is how and if Indonesia has the capacity and willingness to do so.
In Man, the State, and War (1959), Kenneth Waltz puts forward three levels of analysis for international politics: the individual, the state and the international system. Contradictions between the three will only confuse and challenge consistency in decision-making.
Analysis at the level of the international system discerns global power dynamics, but the two other levels of analysis also need to be undertaken when looking into Indonesia’s capacity and drive to promote and protect human rights.
At the state level, where nation-states are seen as actors in a set condition, Indonesia chooses to advocate human rights in the arenas where it shines, such as in formulating the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, establishing the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and organizing the Bali Democracy Forum.
However, in speaking up against human rights violations, Indonesia only does so selectively. This can be seen in Indonesia’s condemnation of Israeli attacks on Palestinians, but also in its inability to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It was also apparent when the country highlighted the need to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, but then voted against the UN General Assembly Resolution on the responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide. In its deliberation, the extent of Indonesia’s ability to support human rights was curbed by its commitment to respect the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, as was evident when it defended its position on Papua and West Papua.
Indonesia has also presented a “human rights paradox” at the individual level of analysis, where it examines idiosyncratic factors as the bases for policymaking.
In the ongoing process of democratic consolidation, Indonesian leaders have frequently bowed to popular pressure in pushing aside and, if they are not careful, sidelining the rights of religious, ethnic, gender and economic minorities. This can be seen in the challenges the country is facing, such as in ensuring freedom of religion, addressing violence against minorities in adopting the domestic workers bill, which has stalled for nearly two decades.
Going forward, Indonesia will look to maintaining its image as a human rights advocate as it assumes the ASEAN chairmanship in 2023, which will enable it to pursue a solution for the Myanmar crisis.
Furthermore, rights issues may be highlighted in order to gain voter support as the 2024 elections draw near, and with Muslims forming almost 90 percent of the population, concerns about Muslim solidarity and human rights could also be brought to the fore.
However, pointing to the human rights challenges of another country could backfire, as Indonesia’s national condition might not be conducive, either. Hence, the different perspectives that exist on the three levels of analysis are always in a state of compromise, with certain interests and strong actors of prevailing, be they for the short or long term.