President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is expected to apologize on behalf of the state to victims of past human rights abuses and their families. One thing is certain, however. The President is sure to deny accusations that he was involved in any crimes against humanity in the past, or else he will be prosecuted and brought to justice.
Then the question is why would he want to apologize for a wrong that he did not commit?
David Miller argues that a nation cannot legitimately enjoy benefits that have been inherited without acknowledging responsibility for past incidents that have involved injustices. This includes providing redress for past abuses.
Yudhoyono has not administered this country from zero. The successes he has achieved during his tenure cannot be completely claimed as his administration’s own accomplishments. He leads this country with all the benefits that have been attained by previous presidents.
Apart from past achievements, there were also mistakes committed. It is hypocritical for Yudhoyono to enjoy and only recognize the benefits that his administration has inherited without recognizing the unjust treatment that the previous governments practiced.
Therefore, Yudhoyono must sincerely apologize to the victims of past human rights violations and their families.
However, as a state in a transition from authoritarianism to democracy, Indonesia is confronted with addressing past injustices. An apology is one way, but there are other things that have to be done as well to resolve past human rights violations.
An apology must be followed by a conviction to prosecute those responsible. An apology neither negates nor replaces prosecution of the perpetrators of human rights violations, because both of them have different roles to play in this transitional context.
An apology is the state’s formal expression of remorse toward injustices endured by the victims and their families. Meanwhile, prosecution is a way to recognize that those injustices shall not be ignored. People may forgive the perpetrators but not forget the crimes.
Of course, however, as Michael Freeman points out, there is a possibility that fair trials may acquit the accused and this may increase the suffering of the victims. Yet, prosecution conveys a clear message to the perpetrators and potential perpetrators in the future that no one is above the law.
Additionally, if perpetrators of atrocious crimes can fool justice, it is a grave insult to the moral conscience of the victims and their families. If Indonesia is truly built upon the rule of law where everyone is equal before the law, the fact that perpetrators can evade justice is an utter nonsense.
This May marks the 14th year of Reform and nonetheless, there are no significant signs that the truth of past human rights abuses shall be revealed or that those who bear responsibility shall be brought to justice. The inability of the state to address past injustices seems to suggest that Indonesia is lost in transition.
Insofar that these transitional initiatives are not thoroughly undertaken, Indonesia has not yet come into a democratic stage in a substantive way. Indonesia may claim to be the third-largest democracy — but perhaps it is in only in a procedural sense. Indonesia may be commended for successfully held free and fair elections.
However, that is not sufficient.
Democracy carries its substantive importance when the outcome of it protects human rights effectively. Therefore, Yudhoyono’s apology must be followed by the prosecutions of those responsible for past human rights abuses. An apology that is disingenuous and undertaken as political accessory is a mockery as it ridicules victims’ pains and their families’ grievances.
The prosecution of perpetrators of human rights abuses is needed because it is also about what kind of legacy that Indonesia as a nation will bequeath to future generations. Ghastly chapters of Indonesia’s history will never be fully finished so long as perpetrators are left unpunished and victims not given adequate reparations.
The absence of prosecution equals impunity and condones the reproduction of state-sponsored violence. It is the absence of justice that has let perpetrators of past human rights abuses brazenly come forward as presidential candidates.
These unfinished transitional initiatives contribute to public amnesia and thus society does not feel guilty by voting or endorsing presidential candidates with poor human rights records. People who have committed egregious crimes do not have the integrity to be our leaders.
If human rights violators can be elected our leaders, human rights protections in the future will be in peril. Bringing those perpetrators to justice will repair the damage that has been done to the victims and, with wholehearted truth-telling, Indonesia can proudly step into peaceful democracy without being haunted by its historical burden. Yudhoyono had better have this clear transitional agenda; otherwise, his apology is no more than empty words.
The writer is program director of the Community Legal Aid Institute (LBH Masyarakat).