Indonesian President Joko Widodo has directed police to shoot suspected drug dealers, citing the need to be “firm” in the face of a national “narcotics emergency”.
Widodo’s statement, echoing earlier remarks from National Police chief Tito Karnavian, has elicited criticism from human rights groups, and drawn parallels to the stance of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose brutal anti-drug crackdown has resulted in more than 7,000 deaths. Duterte’s campaign of extra-judicial and vigilante executions has been strongly condemned by the United Nations.
This is not the first time Widodo, also known as Jokowi, has invoked the use of force in efforts to tackle Indonesia’s drug problem. In 2015, just two months after being sworn in, he declared a state of emergency on drugs and ordered the execution of 14 people for drug-related offences. The revival of the death penalty and refusal to grant clemency were touted as necessary measures to deter drug traffickers, reduce drug demand, and prevent drug-related deaths in the archipelago nation.
The executions were followed by an injection of approximately $100m into Indonesia’s national anti-drug agency, aimed at facilitating a far-reaching campaign to coerce drug users into mandatory treatment or prison.
More harm than good
Executions and crackdowns have not yielded long-term benefits for Indonesians. In fact, more harm has been caused by Indonesia’s severe drug policies than the drugs themselves.
Far from having a deterrent effect, the number of drug-related crimes in Indonesia increased in the months after the executions were carried out in January and April 2015. During the subsequent crackdown, researchers and advocates also documented an increase in the use of coercive measures, prison overcrowding, including raids by law enforcement, forced drug testing, and compulsory detention. There was widespread extortion and breaches of confidentiality whereby health facilities were compelled to disclose personal details and medical records of suspected drug users to the authorities, pushing drug users away from health services. It also increased the price of heroin, driving users to unwittingly take tainted drugs which increase the risk of overdose.
There is no evidence that Indonesia’s costly drug offensive in 2015 had any effect on drug use, trafficking, or production. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, general population prevalence rates of most illegal and illicit drugs in Indonesia largely remained stable since the early 2000s. Far from constituting an outlier, Indonesia’s annual rates of drug consumption are similar to rates in other South-East Asian countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar, and much lower than rates in the United States and much of Europe.
This implies that Indonesia’s increasingly harsh and expensive drug policies have done little to shift existing drug trends in a favourable direction. Experience from countries with punitive approaches shows that crackdowns and criminalisation of people who use drugs, which cost states an estimated $100bn annually, not only fail to reduce the prevalence of drug use, but increase drug-related criminality, drive people away from health and support services, and fuel the HIV and hepatitis C epidemics. As a case in point, the explosive HIV epidemic among injecting drug users on the island of Cebu in the Philippines, which shot up from less than 1 percent in 2007 to 54 percent in 2010, has been solely attributed to that country’s draconian drug policies.
In 2015, Widodo’s appeal to punitive measures was aimed at recovering his plummeting popularity among voters after a series of policy blunders. It was also intended to re-cast Widodo as a strongman who fights for the interests of ordinary citizens, rather than acting as a puppet of Indonesia’s long-ruling political elite.
The hardline approach, conveniently peddled as a show of national sovereignty and rejection of imported “Western” human rights concepts, may now be gaining traction for similar reasons.
Widodo's encouragement of unlawful violence to tackle the country's drug woes is not a sign of strength, but of weakness.
In recent weeks, Indonesia’s political narrative has shifted toward the forthcoming presidential elections in 2019. The defeat of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a close Widodo ally, in Jakarta’s gubernatorial elections last April, and his subsequent imprisonment on blasphemy charges, have cast doubt on Widodo’s own prospects for re-election. Purnama lost to Anies Baswedan, who was backed by Widodo’s former political contender Prabowo Subianto, a disgraced general who had campaigned against Widodo with a promise to rule with an iron fist.
Since drug use remains complex, taboo, and highly stigmatised by society at large, “magic pill” solutions tend to yield results with voters – even if they are ineffective in addressing the real problem. Calling for increased repression and violence against a common enemy (drug traffickers) may be seen by Widodo and his advisers as a strategy to score political points and reassert his credibility with voters.
The way forward
If Widodo was truly interested in championing the interests of ordinary Indonesians, he would immediately decriminalise drug possession for personal use, which would keep non-violent drug users out of the country’s congested prisons, preserve family unity, save the state money, and offer people a second chance at a productive life. Instead of following in the footsteps of the Philippines – an example of failed drug policy by all measures – Widodo should look to Portugal. Portugal, which removed criminal penalties for drug use and reallocated a greater share of resources from drug-related law enforcement to healthcare in 2001, has seen dramatic decreases in drug use rates, crime, HIV infections, and drug-related deaths. Although decriminalisation approaches have been slow to take root in Asia, the topic has been the subject of much debate in Thailand recently.
Next, Widodo should scale up harm reduction programmes recommended by the United Nations and proven to cut problematic drug use and related harms. These include expanding access to life-saving naloxone for people at risk of overdose, providing clean needles to prevent the spread of blood-borne viruses such as HIV, offering less dangerous drugs such as methadone to allow drug-dependent persons to stabilise their lives, and increasing access to voluntary, community-based drug treatment.
Investing in these interventions would make a lot more sense than shooting drug pushers. Modelling projections show that the redirection of just 7.5 percent of current global drug control spending by 2020 would achieve a 94 percent cut in new HIV infections among drug users and a 93 percent drop in HIV-related deaths.
Indonesia’s harm reduction programme – underfunded, but surviving alongside its harsh drug control regime – is chiefly credited with reducing HIV rates among injectors from 53 percent in 2007 to 36 percent in 2011. Indonesia is also home to some of Asia’s most successful voluntary, community-based treatment programmes. More draconian measures could finally tip the balance and undo these gains.
Widodo’s encouragement of unlawful violence to tackle the country’s drug woes is not a sign of strength, but of weakness. Unfortunately, unless the Indonesian public rejects the defining “strongman” politics of the elites, arguments that appeal to popular opinion will remain stronger than those that appeal to evidence or humanity.
Claudia Stoicescu is a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholar and doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention. She has also been an independent research and policy consultant to non-for-profit organisations, UN agencies, and governments in Asia, Europe, and North America. Her current research focuses on HIV risk among women who inject drugs in Indonesia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.