Indonesia: Covid-19 Response Overshadows Rights

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A woman receives a Covid-19 vaccine at North Sumatra University Hospital in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia,  November 26, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara

(New York) – The Indonesian government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic displaced important human rights concerns in 2021, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2022. After a deadly surge in cases in 2021, the authorities locked down Java, Bali, and many other parts of the archipelago.

“The Covid-19 pandemic proved to be a much greater threat to the Indonesian government’s economic agenda than legislation harmful to workers rights and the environment,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Only the hard-hitting Delta variant, not rights issues, could derail the government’s economic agenda.”

In the 752-page World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. Executive Director Kenneth Roth challenges the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, showing that the appeal of democracy remains strong. Meanwhile, autocrats are finding it more difficult to manipulate elections in their favor. Still, he says, democratic leaders must do a better job of meeting national and global challenges and of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends.

As of December, the Covid-19 pandemic had infected 4.2 million people in Indonesia and caused more than 141,709 coronavirus-related deaths since March 2020. A public health group estimated that the actual numbers could be at least twice as high as the government statistics indicate. Many people, most in self-isolation, did not report their illness or receive government health care.

The basic rights of religious minorities, women and girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities continued to come under attack during 2021 with little government response. Islamist groups targeted minorities with threats and intimidation.

In February, the government issued a regulation permitting girls and female teachers at state schools to choose whether or not to wear Islamic attire – the jilbab (cloth covering a woman’s head, neck and chest) combined with long skirts and long-sleeve shirts. Thousands of state schools, particularly in Indonesia’s 24 Muslim-majority provinces, require Muslim girls to wear the jilbab beginning in primary school.

The Supreme Court cancelled that regulation in May, meaning that widespread bullying of girls and women to wear a jilbab, which can cause deep psychological distress, will continue. Girls who do not comply have been forced to leave school, while female civil servants, including teachers and university lecturers, have lost their jobs or resigned. In some very conservative areas, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and other non-Muslim students and teachers are also forced to wear the jilbab.

Sporadic fighting between Indonesian security forces and the West Papua National Liberation Army continued in Papua province, displacing thousands of Indigenous Papuans, with at least 2,000 crossing the national border to Papua New Guinea. Indonesia maintains the five-decade-long restriction on international rights monitors and foreign journalists from visiting the two provinces, now citing ostensible pandemic concerns.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo officially took over the G20 presidency in Rome in October in preparation for the next G20 summit in Bali in October 2022. Indonesia will be the first developing nation to host the G20 summit.

“President Jokowi should invest more political capital to end discrimination against religious minorities and women and girls in Indonesia,” Adams said. “Recovering from the pandemic needs to include tackling discriminatory regulations against Indonesia’s minorities.”

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