Kay Seok & Andreas Harsono
When the UN Human Rights Council met in Geneva last Friday to discuss North Korea, Indonesia stood out as part of a small and shrinking group. It voted against a resolution condemning human-rights violations in the world’s most closed country. Indonesia’s partners in voting no? China, Russia, Cuba and Egypt.
A look at the situation in North Korea tells you everything you need to know about whether the government of Kim Jong-il should be condemned. North Korea does not allow religious freedom, for example. Indonesians might be sympathetic to the plight of North Koreans, who are subject to arrest and imprisonment, even for life, if they practice Islam, Buddhism, Christianity or any other religious belief.
North Korea executes people for even nonviolent crimes such as theft of state property — in a country where the authorities can claim virtually everything as state property. When they carry out such executions, usually by shooting, they force the family of the condemned to stand in the front row to watch their loved ones die.
North Korea also runs large labor camps where an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people are imprisoned, almost 1 percent of the population. The reason they have so many prisoners is that they lock up not only the people accused of political offenses but their entire families, including young children. Worse still, when babies are born inside such camps, they inherit their parents’ prisoner status. Such children grow up inside the camps and are subjected to forced labor at an early age, with little hope that they will ever be released. The inmates in these camps resemble slaves as well as political prisoners.
Criminal-defamation complaints by powerful figures may be among the biggest threat to journalists in Indonesia, but North Koreans face even worse. It has no press freedom.
All media are state-owned and state-censored. North Koreans are not allowed to watch foreign TV or listen to foreign radio. North Korea is one of the very few countries where the vast majority of citizens are not allowed to access the Internet, not even in a monitored, restricted way as in China. Bloggers simply don’t exist.
Members of Jakarta’s diverse and vibrant media, including reporters and photographers, members of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, established in Jakarta during the repressive Suharto era, should ask Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and his diplomats why they don’t demand that North Korea allow independent media.
Many people in Java still remember the devastating hunger during the Japanese occupation. In North Korea, a famine killed about a million people, roughly 5 percent of the population, in the 1990s. Although it recovered with generous international support, hunger persists, and young children, the elderly, the disabled, and pregnant and nursing women remain vulnerable.
But in recent years, much of the humanitarian aid dried up as North Korea continued its severe restrictions on monitoring aid distribution. Donors are concerned that food aid may go to the military or be sold in markets for profit, instead of reaching the needy.
What is obvious to everyone in Geneva and beyond, but apparently not to the Indonesian government, is that Jakarta is in bad company when it votes against a resolution that calls for North Korea to stop its abuses.
In Geneva, some diplomats shrugged and confided to us that getting Indonesia to change its stance at the Human Rights Council might be a lost cause. But why would an emerging democracy try to protect one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships from international condemnation? Why wouldn’t Indonesia back a call to let United Nations human-rights monitors into the country? Is it to preserve diplomatic relations with North Korea? But many countries that have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang still join the rest of the world in condemning its abuses against its own people, so this isn’t a credible argument.
Is it that Indonesia prefers cooperation to confrontation? But Indonesia’s own past foreign affairs ministers, including Alwi Shihab and Hassan Wirajuda, have been very critical of the Burmese military government, and Burma is a fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Indonesians should ask their government why they are defending the government in Pyongyang. This kind of behavior harms Indonesia’s reputation within the international community.
Having experienced decades of dictatorship and as an emerging democracy and a regional leader, Indonesia should be leading efforts to promote and protect human rights in the world’s darkest corners.
Kay Seok and Andreas Harsono work for Human Rights Watch respectively from Seoul and Jakarta.