How Did Indonesia Become the Most Popular Member of the UN Human Rights Council?

By Aaron L. Connelly, Editor, cogitASIA, CSIS

The Human Rights Council chamber in Geneva. United Nations photo in the public domain.

The Human Rights Council chamber in Geneva. United Nations photo in the public domain.

In elections to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday, May 20, Indonesia received 184 votes of a possible 191, more than any other country. Though most candidate countries were elected on uncontested regional slates, the U.N. membership used votes and abstentions in the secret ballot to demonstrate the level of support for each state. So why did Indonesia receive the most votes?

Indonesia’s multiple narratives about its own identity no doubt made the difference. Indonesia is alternately a story of democratic triumph and reform, a champion of the developing world, a majority-Muslim country that stands by its Palestinian coreligionists, and a leader of ASEAN. Indonesian diplomats tell me that they used all four narratives in negotiations with other U.N. member states to earn their support for the Indonesian bid. With free countries they emphasized Indonesia’s remarkable 1998 democratic transformation. Among fellow developing countries, some with grave human rights problems, they emphasized their leadership as a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement– an argument punctuated by preparations for the NAM ministerial hosted by Indonesia in Bali this week.

If Indonesia were the model Scandinavian democracy, in other words, it would not be nearly as popular. Indonesia, like many other developing countries, bristles at Western criticism of its failure to address serious and ongoing human rights violations. These problems were on particularly prominent display Tuesday, as the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by the daughter of Filep Karma. Karma is a Papuan independence activist who remains in jail for leading a peaceful assembly which raised the secessionist Morning Star flag, despite a ruling four years ago that the sedition law under which he was convicted is unconstitutional. Indonesia argues that criticism of cases such as Karma’s is indicative a double standard that represents anomalies as trends, and foments separatism designed to weaken Indonesia. They are especially unconvinced by foreign criticism, which they often characterize as illegitimately neo-colonial. These arguments have allowed them to demonstrate empathy with other developing countries that have been subjected to similar criticism.

So which Indonesia will take the seat now reserved for it at the hemicycle in Geneva? In the past, the democratic Indonesia has shown up. Last October, Indonesia co-sponsored a resolution creating the position of a special rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association. The resolution was the initiative of the United States, but was co-sponsored by a broad geographic coalition comprised of Indonesia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, the Maldives, Mexico, and Nigeria. The resolution was adopted by consensus, a result which would not have been possible without the Indonesian contribution to the effort.

Its election on May 20 will give Indonesia another three years on the Council. Here’s to hoping that it is the democratic Indonesia that continues to show up in Geneva, and that their role begins to play a salutary effect on politics back home as well.

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