|Indonesian President Joko Widodo with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.|
For people convicted of drug crimes on Indonesia's death row, the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan has added significance this year. After moving 15 prisoners to "Execution Island" last month and announcing that their deaths by firing squad could take place at any time, the country's attorney general conceded he might postpone the killings because "well, executing [during] fasting [month] is not good, is it?"
It's too bad that this moral sense isn't applied year-round. Although many countries punish people for their drug addiction, only 36 have laws that prescribe the death penalty for drug-related convictions. 7, including Indonesia, regularly enforce the death penalty as a sentence for drug offences (others include China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam).
Indonesia is currently the centre of international attention for a number of reasons - 1 of which is the fact that executions represent an abrupt about face for the country, which until last year had appeared to be upholding a de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty. The upcoming executions were set in motion less than a month after the country's delegation to the U.N. was booed from the gallery during a speech about the use of the death penalty to combat drug trafficking, and are just one part of a chilling series of executions planned for 2016 and 2017.
Another reason for the international spotlight is the fact that Indonesia is executing foreigners - with blatant disregard for international opinion. Neither the booing at the U.N. nor direct appeals by other countries has had any impact.
In 2015, following intensive efforts by Brazil and the Netherlands to win clemency for 2 citizens convicted of drug offenses in Indonesia, the pair were executed by firing squad along with an Indonesian woman and 3 other foreigners (from Nigeria, Malawi and Vietnam). A few months later, 8 more people were executed. Brazil, Australia and the Netherlands temporarily recalled their ambassadors in response to the executions, but with little effect. According to Amnesty International, Jakarta imposed at least 46 new death sentences in 2015 - including 29 for drug-related crimes - up from 6 in 2014.
The executions are partly tied to President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's desire to play on the widespread belief that drug users are a menace to society - a fear inflated and dramatized in the war on drugs. Indonesia has a significant drug problem, but no reliable statistics on its size. Widodo declared a state of emergency over the country's drug use shortly after being sworn in. He cited government statistics that nearly 5 million people - or about 2 % of the population - are "affected" by drug consumption and that between 40 and 50 Indonesians die every day because of drug use.
Although academics from the country's top universities questioned the government numbers - and earlier this year Indonesia's National Narcotics Agency said that it had overestimated drugs deaths by nearly 20 % - the war on drugs and use of the death penalty appears to have popular approval in Indonesia. Widodo has vowed to reject all requests for clemency for people convicted of drug-related crimes.
Capital punishment, threats and arrests are the wrong answer for Indonesia's drug problem. The people being executed in Indonesia are not the primary drivers of the illicit drug trade. Some of them are "drug mules" who were vulnerable to exploitation; others were unaware they were carrying drugs in the first place. Indonesian scholars point to data showing that drug use has not been reduced by criminalizing the behavior. Instead, such policies have fueled hepatitis C and HIV epidemics and driven people away from health services that might otherwise have helped them overcome their addiction.
Executions are inconsistent with Pancasila - Indonesia's official philosophical foundation, which calls for a just and civilized humanity. They are also a violation of Indonesia's commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which says the death penalty should be imposed only for the most serious crimes and that those sentenced to it should have the right to seek a pardon.
Widodo's presidential campaign - based on an anti-corruption platform, projecting a man of the people ready to support farmers, protect minority groups, and resolve past human rights abuses - attracted domestic and international support. The 1st president not plucked from political dynasties or the military, Widodo's election was seen as a significant step in Indonesia's evolution towards a free and united democratic society. This was to be the final phase in a national journey that began in 1998, when Indonesians pulled themselves out of half a century of repression, violence and instability.
Yet Widodo's approval ratings dropped within months of taking office. Having risen from the ranks of domestic politics, he is often criticized for lacking foreign policy experience - an area in which his predecessor was strong. A tough stance on drug use gives him a political platform for big talk on Indonesian sovereignty - and he's determined that national drug policy will not be swayed by foreign opinion.
Widodo's politicization of the drug challenges faced by thousands of Indonesian families is a betrayal of his stance as a man of the people committed to protecting the people. Drug use is complex, poorly understood and heavily stigmatized - it's an issue that needs to be addressed with reason, science and in consultation with the people involved; not a punishment-oriented approach designed to advance a political and moral agenda.
Indonesia's move toward democracy has often set an example for the region. It needs a public health response to its drug problem that will allow it to be a model for the rest of the world, and which is based on programs that have been proven to work. The country has taken steps in this direction, including introducing opioid substitution therapy and increasing access to clean needles, syringes and HIV treatment. Widodo should expand access to these initiatives and abandon his use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes.
The government's decision not to kill during Ramadan gives us hope that rationality and compassion can change Indonesia's policy on drugs. The death penalty is a punishment of the past that has little place in a country looking towards the future.
Source: Reuters, Commentary, June 21, 2016. Naomi Burke-Shyne is a senior program officer with the Public Health Program at the Open Society Foundations.