Indonesia’s dramatic executions hide the real problem

Indonesia’s draconian narcotics laws kill the country’s citizens – not low-level drug traffickers.

Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran stand in a holding cell in the Denpasar court in Bali [Reuters]
Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran stand in a holding cell in Denpasar court in Bali [Reuters]

A firing squad in Indonesia has shot Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran together with six out of seven other alleged narcotics traffickers. Their deaths have caused an international outcry.

Over the past few days, the foreign ministers of Australia, Brazil, France, and the Philippines had all expressed their dismay over their nationals’ imminent execution.

The diplomatic frenzy culminated in a personal appeal by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Indonesian President Joko Widodo to stop the executions. These diplomatic rows were accompanied by extensive press coverage and social media campaigns.

Widodo rejected all appeals for clemency, referring to his duty to protect Indonesian citizens from drugs. In numerous interviews, the president reiterated that the country was facing a national drug emergency, with dozens of Indonesians dying from substance abuse every day.

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The executions of drug traffickers were necessary to prevent future drug related deaths.  

Harm-reduction strategies

However, if the Indonesian government were really serious about protecting the wellbeing of its citizens, it would pursue harm-reduction strategies aimed at Indonesian drug users instead of executing drug traffickers.

Currently, Indonesia has not only some of the world’s harshest laws against the trafficking but also the consumption of drugs.

ndonesian laws make almost no distinction between drug dealers and drug users and anti-narcotics laws that criminalise and discriminate against addicts have become more draconian over time.

In the late 1990s, politicians such as Religious Affairs Minister Tarmizi Taher, a physician, supported the establishment of methadone clinics and needle exchange programmes for drug users. President Abdurrahman Wahid, in office from 1999 to 2001, treated drug addiction as a health issue and not a criminal matter.

However, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the “reform president” who was in power from 2004 to 2014, turned drug consumption into a security issue. The current president seems determined to continue his predecessor’s conservative politics despite a global trend towards softening the approach to drug use.

The fall-out of the government’s approach has been a national tragedy. Criminalising the consumption of even small amounts of drugs has led to a massive increase in the number of prison inmates. Around 60 percent of the 12,000 people locked up in the capital Jakarta alone are imprisoned for substance abuse. Since most Indonesian prisons provide no health services, inmates are forced to engage in practices that carry a high risk of HIV transmission.

Widodo is a president who owes his political career largely to symbolic actions. He managed to convince people that he ‘reformed’ his hometown Solo City, a campaign claim which … catapulted him into the presidential office.


Counterproductive policies

The going rate for a used needle in a Jakarta prison is said to be less than 50 cents per shot. Indonesia’s “war against drugs” is therefore directly responsible for an explosion of HIV/AIDS cases in Indonesia’s penitentiaries. Official statistics show that around 30 percent of prison deaths recorded were due to HIV/ AIDS.

While the country’s approach to drug users is characterised by government incompetence and counterproductive policies, the international community has contributed its fair share to this deplorable situation. Many of Indonesia’s drug laws are inspired by the US approach to drugs, which has seeped into Indonesia through the United Nations’ conservative narcotics policy.

Furthermore, a surge in funding for law enforcement in recent years, partially paid for by foreign donor agencies promoting “good governance”, has provided the Indonesian government with the financial means to enforce laws that take a hardline approach to drugs.

Widodo is a president who owes his political career largely to symbolic actions. He managed to convince people that he “reformed” his hometown Solo City, a campaign claim which made him governor of Jakarta in 2013 and catapulted him into the presidential office shortly afterwards.

Publicity stunts

Ever since, he has continued to pursue a political agenda that is driven by publicity stunts, such as personally inspecting broken water pumps in the slums of the capital.

The president has plenty of reasons to continue his superficial approach to the country’s drug problem. The political capital that can be reaped from the dramatic execution of drug dealers is undoubtedly higher than if one were to focus on improving the everyday situation of drug users through harm-reduction programmes. However, his approach does very little to protect some of Indonesia’s most vulnerable citizens.

The daily ordeal Indonesians with addiction problems suffer because of their government’s short-sighted policies is a tragedy that unfolds more quietly than the headline-generating drama of executions. However, it is no less real and deserves the same level of diplomatic outrage and extensive coverage in international and local newspapers.

Michael Buehler is a lecturer in comparative politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He has also been an associate research fellow at the Asia Society in New York City since 2011.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.