Flags in front of United Nations building in New York City

By Shailaja Neelakantan

Indonesia joined North Korea, China, Russia and other repressive regimes in voting “no” this week on a U.N. resolution mandating annual debate on preventing crimes against humanity – raising alarm among human rights advocates and observers of Southeast Asia’s largest democracy.

Still, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly – 115 in favor to 15 against, with 28 abstentions – for the resolution, which also formally requested the U.N. secretary-general to report every year on measures to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing and other war crimes.

The May 18 vote was on what is commonly referred to as R2P: the responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. 

Indonesia’s vote against the resolution was “completely mystifying” to Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect (Global R2P), a New York-based organization set up in 2008 to “make the promise of R2P a reality.” 

“I was shocked, surprised and deeply disappointed. This is Indonesia, basically voting with North Korea and some of the worst human rights abusers in the world on a resolution to discuss R2P every year,” Adams told BenarNews.

“We don’t see Indonesia as being similar to North Korea. We think in particular that Indonesia has such an important role to play in region to stand up for human rights whether to do with Myanmar or generally in the world. It is a democracy.”

Usman Hamid, executive director of the Indonesian office of Amnesty International, said Indonesia’s position showed its poor commitment to advancing and protecting human rights globally.

“We lament Indonesia’s action,” Usman told Tempo, an Indonesian news website.

Indonesia, in fact, was the only member of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to vote against the resolution, while neighbors Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines voted in favor of it, and the rest abstained. Indonesia transitioned to democracy, after the May 1998 fall of the dictator Suharto and nearly five decades of military rule.

The resolution this week to put R2P on the annual agenda came in light of “the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict and crises raging in strife-affected countries like Myanmar and Syria,” a U.N. press statement said. 

R2P was adopted as part of the U.N. World Summit Outcome Document in 2005. Four years later, the General Assembly passed a resolution to “continue its consideration of the responsibility to protect.”

No need to ‘reinvent the wheel’

Indonesia had joined the 2005 consensus that adopted the concept, as the Southeast Asian nation’s U.N. representative pointed out in his statement this week.

According to Indonesia, “R2P does not need a standing annual agenda item,” because debates on reports on it are mandated by the 2009 General Assembly resolution.

“Indonesia’s voting position today should not be mistaken as against R2P,” the country’s U.N. representative said, according to a statement issued on Thursday by Jakarta’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations.

“Efforts to discuss R2P must not turn the concept into something that it is not. There is hardly any need to reinvent the wheel.”

Many were taken aback by Indonesia’s vote, because on the face of it, Indonesia, with Malaysia, was one of the first ASEAN members to call for a special leaders’ summit of the bloc to discuss the military coup in Myanmar and its violent aftermath for that country’s citizens.

The spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry insisted that the country’s vote at the General Assembly this week was not on the R2P’s “substance” but “it [was] procedural.”

That argument did not cut it, Lina Alexandra, a senior researcher at Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told The Jakarta Post.

“If it doesn’t have anything to do with the substance, our question is, why bother voting ‘no’? After all, it’s just procedure regarding where [R2P] should be discussed,” she told the Indonesian newspaper.

“The concern is that [Tuesday’s] move could be picked up by anyone who wants to question Indonesia’s commitment to resolving the crisis in Myanmar. This could backfire on us.”

GlobalR2P’s Adams agreed with Alexandra.

“Indonesia’s explanation has no merit. If everything was going well and there was an abundance of world peace then you can say, ‘Do we really need this on the annual agenda?’ Clearly human rights are a big issue,” Adams said.

‘Papua is a possibility’

Some analysts wondered whether Indonesia’s response to a recent increase in violence in its restive Papua region was the reason it voted no.

After the escalation of violence in Papua, Indonesia designated Papuan separatist rebels as a terrorist group, a move that was criticized by some rights groups.

Indonesian forces had invaded the Papua region in 1963. Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-administered ballot, which many Papuans and rights groups said was a sham.

Papua’s situation may be a reason for Indonesia’s vote, said Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Papua is a possibility, in that he doesn’t want to discuss that situation, certainly that could be a factor,” Kurlantzick told BenarNews.

“The Jokowi administration has become less protective of human rights over time … that may be something of factor in the way the country voted,” he said, referring to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

Besides, Jokowi is not interested in foreign policy, Kurlantzick said. In addition, Indonesia has a long history of “being skeptical of foreign intervention,” the CFR senior fellow added.

“But still, R2P doesn’t mean forces will be sent off to Myanmar,” Kurlantzick noted correctly.

Indonesia had also indicated that “the contentious application of R2P ... further testified that greater caution is indeed necessary.”

It did not expand on what it was referring to.

Global R2P’s Adams said it was possible – though he said he could not be sure – Indonesia may have been referring to the case of Libya.

NATO intervened in Libya in 2011, during the civil war there, which some had said was the first application of the R2P doctrine.

“Libya has become a convenient excuse,” Adams said.

“They went looking in the dustbin of convenient diplomatic excuses and they found that one and dusted it off. It is not good enough.”

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Jakarta Post questioned Indonesia’s reasons for justifying its vote against R2P.

Indonesia’s “statement falls short of explaining how Indonesia, which touts itself as the world’s third-largest democracy, could end up with the likes of North Korea and other countries that are repressing their own people,” the editorial said.

“When it comes to observing democracy and human rights, Indonesia does not want to be associated with most countries in this group.”