When officials and Islamic organizations in Indonesia commented on the Charlie Hebdo massacre Paris earlier this year, hardly anyone only criticized the terrorists — any Indonesian statement on the issue seemed to be incomplete without at least also condemning the cartoonists for their profane caricatures. Many Indonesians agree that there should be global standards for the ethics of satire. Muhammadiyah, the nation’s second-largest Islamic organization, even urged the United Nations, through the Indonesian government, to develop a code of conduct for these kinds of cases. The right to not be insulted by caricatures clearly is seen by many here as a universal human right.
Then the ‘Bali Nine’ executions came along and many of the very same people had the opposite reaction: instead of defending universal ethics such as the right to life, they emphasized national sovereignty and the particular ethical norms in this country. Indonesia, in their point of view, should not be swayed by human rights considerations in the case of capital punishment, nor should it negotiate with other countries. The death penalty is perceived as an expression of national sovereignty. National sovereignty here means the sovereignty of Indonesian laws over international human rights.
Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, fought for political sovereignty, economic self-sufficiency and cultural independence. Those are still ideals cherished by the entire political spectrum in this country, from the extreme right to the extreme left. But as a part of a global community, Indonesia has plenty to gain from the exchange of ideas and from international cooperation. Many are not aware that this is already the case: the Bali Nine gang would never have been caught if not for the help of Australian authorities.
When Indonesian officials and civil organizations call for the universal recognition of the dignity of faith, for the sake of consistency they also should listen to those in favor of universal human rights. Any universal value is not recognized a priori by all cultures, but recognition requires a process of negotiation and exchange of ideas and arguments.
Apart from the right to life, the importance of mercy is also acknowledged in almost every culture, so why should it not play a more important role in Indonesia’s legal system?
What led many Australians to protest against the execution of the two Australian inmates on death row — who on April 29 were shot dead along with five other foreigners and one Indonesian — were reports from Bali’s Kerobokan prison that showed the men regretted their crimes were engaged in rehabilitation activities. Australians saw desperate relatives begging for mercy, making it is almost impossible for many to not feel any empathy — regardless of one’s stand on the crimes for which the men were convicted.
Some Indonesians have confused this empathy with Australian support for drug trafficking. But we must not forget that the war against drugs is not just being waged by Indonesia. It is almost universally acknowledged that many drugs are dangerous and that their sale and consumption should be prevented. Here, Indonesia also has a lot to gain from working together with other countries.
Interestingly, the Indonesian government delayed the executions until after the Asian-African Conference. While the sovereignty of each country was highlighted at the conference, just as in the public discourse in Indonesia — which saw other countries’ attempts to protect their citizens from being executed as threats against national sovereignty — the spirit of the first AAC in 1955 was a lot more cosmopolitan.
The first principle in the 1955 declaration on the promotion of world peace and cooperation demanded respect for fundamental human rights and the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, including of course the right to life. By executing foreign citizens just days after the commemoration of this important conference, international cooperation was sacrificed on the altar nationalism by Indonesia’s present-day elite. Instead of implementing reforms in the law enforcement system to create an effective tool to fight drug production and trafficking, eight men were killed to make a political point.
The international community is not an archipelago of isolated islands, even if some nationalists in Indonesia or elsewhere might see it that way. But fighting for universal rights is much more difficult than appealing to particular cultural values.
Why not embrace the right to life and mercy as universal values? Australia and European countries can learn from those values, too. Showing mercy for refugees who are seeking a better life in Australia or in the European Union is necessary if governments there want to advocate for mercy convincingly. Like it or not, we are a global community and our common values should trump nationalist considerations.
Ririn Sefsani is working with the Partnership for Governance Reform (Kemitraan) and was a voluntary supporter of Joko Widodo’s election campaign. Timo Duile is a lecturer in the department of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany.