Jokowi and the Death Penalty: Weighing the Costs and Benefits

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Jokowi and the Death Penalty: Weighing the Costs and Benefits

Indonesia’s president continues to execute drug offenders, despite international pressure.

The third wave of executions announced by the Indonesian attorney general’s office has created an uproar and made headlines all around the world. Out of 14 slated to be executed, four — one Indonesian citizen and three Nigerians — were shot dead by a firing squad on early Friday.

Jakarta’s tough stance on the death penalty during the administration of President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, has exposed Indonesia to a wave condemnation. However, despite heavy criticism from the international community, including human rights advocates and foreign governments, Jokowi is determined to continue the executions, based on the argument that Indonesia has an alarming level of drug crime that particularly affects young people. Under this narrative, drug-related crimes are portrayed as the main threat to national security, more serious than terrorism and corruption.

Thus far, Jokowi has not compromised on any drug convicts on death row, including foreign nationals, in order to carry out his “war on drugs” policy. In particular, the executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran of the Bali Nine in 2015 triggered a lot of debate on Indonesia’s tough stance on the death penalty.

In its position as a retentionist state, Indonesia considers the death penalty as necessary in deterring crime, maintaining the law and order of the society, and safeguarding the interest of their people.

The debates in this furor, however, are not just about the death penalty being exercised by Indonesia. It involves a bigger question — that is, the legal process in Indonesia. Under Indonesian law, death row prisoners cannot be executed unless all legal avenues, including clemency appeals, have been fully exhausted.

At the international level, Indonesia is a signatory of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which it has clearly stated that every prisoner facing a death sentence has the right to fair trial and the right to go through consideration for clemency before the sentence can be enacted.

When the legal process is not fully respected and followed, this raises the question of the Jokowi government’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights.

Furthermore, the death penalty in Indonesia is also highly dependent on political factors, public pressure, and religious beliefs. While there are many local and international non-governmental organizations that advocate for the abolition of the death penalty in Indonesia, there is also strong support for the death penalty from the local community, especially among anti-drug organizations and religious groups.

On the other hand, in the eyes of the Jokowi administration, with its inward-looking foreign policy, national interests are something that should not be compromised, no matter the cost. While international pressure might pose a cost on the use of the death penalty in Indonesia, executions continue to be a tool to uphold national interests.

During Indonesia’s early democratization process, Jakarta was always seen as a champion in promoting human rights at the regional level in ASEAN. Indonesia together with a few other countries in the region, such as the Philippines, had been strong players in moving ASEAN forward in incorporating regional human rights mechanisms, with the emergence of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and also the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD).

Now, in the face of pressure from the international community over Jakarta’s stance on the death penalty, the executions send a complicated signal on which direction Indonesia is moving in when it comes to upholding the values of democracy and human rights. Will the strong stance of Jokowi on the death penalty affect Indonesia’s growth as an emerging power in the region and in the world?

Predicting how far the Indonesian government under the Jokowi administration will insist on the death penalty requires an understanding of Indonesian concerns regarding sovereignty, intervention, and security in the long run. Whether Jokowi is willing to reconsider the death penalty or soften his approach will be a tough domestic decision. But viewed in the longer term, his position on the death penalty could pose as a test of Jokowi’s commitment to Indonesia’s democratic future.

Dr. Khoo Ying Hooi is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya.

Huong Yu Sin is a postgraduate student at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya.