Indonesia’s tragic war on drugs


Early last year, Indonesia’s new President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a political outsider elected with the support of many in civil society, quickly squandered much of his international goodwill when he proceeded with a series of executions of foreign nationals for drug-related crimes. And there’s fear of more ahead.

“President Jokowi executed 14 people within four months of his election. Never before had Indonesia executed so many people in such a short time,” said Ricky Gunawan, a human rights lawyer with LBH Masyarakat (Community Legal Aid Institute), which is based in Jakarta.

“It was a surprise moment. Lots of people in the Indonesian human rights community thought [Jokowi] would bring positive change to Indonesia, but then all of a sudden he declared a war on drugs.”

A year later, 54-year-old Jokowi – the country’s first president who was not an army general or from the political elite – wants to expand the fight against drugs, even calling it, in a recent speech, the #1 problem facing Indonesia. That has raised fears of a new wave of executions.

At a time when the adverse impacts of heavy-handed drug policies are clear in countries like the United States and Mexico, and the United Nations is actively looking to reform its drug policies, there are concerns that punitive drug policies in Indonesia could lead to overcrowded prisons and adversely impact human rights.

“When the government says ‘we have to be harsher on drugs,’ the police and military are often see that as a license to do whatever they want,” said Diederick Lohman, associate director of the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“This can lead to widespread torture, executions, people arbitrarily killed. We’re very concerned about that kind of spin-off effect in Indonesia.”

Harsh new laws being considered would increase punishment for drug offenses, potentially including draconian penalties such as force-feeding drug traffickers their own narcotics until they die, or surrounding drug-criminal-only prisons with crocodiles, tigers, and piranhas.

“A blanket criminalisation of the use of the drugs has been shown to be ineffective from a public health perspective, and can be damaging,” said Lohman.

Of immense concern is the resumption of the use of the death penalty, which organisations, including Amnesty International, HRW, and others believe is discriminatory, prone to misuse by skewed justice systems and does nothing to deter crime. The last executions took place in April 2015, where eight men, including several Nigerians, two Australians and a Brazilian were shot by firing squad.

Currently, the majority of those on death row in Indonesia are there for drug-related crimes, with a huge percentage of them foreign nationals.

Many of those convicted are not the head of drug syndicates, or even drug producers, but often traffickers, many of whom were either tricked, or coerced, into sneaking drugs into the archipelago.

“Women are seriously affected by ‘War on Drugs,’” said Gurnawan, “Because [they] are vulnerable to be manipulated and used as drug mules by syndicates.”

Prisons, too, are filling up with those arrested for drug-related crimes. According to Al Jazeera, around 60 percent of the 12,000 people locked up in the capital Jakarta are imprisoned for substance abuse or selling drugs. Conversely, there are only 22,000 therapy beds across the country, despite official statistics saying that 1.2 million drug addicts need immediate medical care. And even those are not being used because of the climate of fear now prevalent around drugs.

“When drug users are seen as targets for law enforcement, what happens is that those who are at significant risk of health harms are driven away from health services because they fear being arrested,” said Lohman.

Gurnawan echoes this. “If Indonesia decriminalises drug use and [minor] drug possession, then drug users will access treatment.”


Indonesia’s Advantage

The United States, Mexico and Europe embarked on their punitive drug policies decades ago, which ended up having little impact on drug abuse. On the other hand, Indonesia has the advantage of tapping into a much wider breadth of knowledge and research about drug usage.

This includes the adverse impacts of mass incarceration and giving too much power to the national police or military, in a fight against drugs. These experiences show that such a “war on drugs” not only often won’t work, but can make things worse.

“The evidence that we have for highly punitive approaches is mostly negative,” said Lohman. “Despite all the efforts to seize trafficked drugs, drugs in many markets are cheaper now than 10-20 years ago.”

For example, in the United States, a national drug policy focused on heavy-handed police tactics and a legal system focused on imprisonment rather than rehabilitation has left the country with the largest prison population in the world, and no discernible reduction in drug use, as the recent heroin epidemic in country attests to.

The sad truth is, around the world, anti-drug fights are less aimed at tackling a problem, but rather, gaining political support, and Indonesia is no exception. Drug users are unpopular, and an easy target for politicians seeking more votes.

“Drugs have always been a conservative issue, exploited easily to gain popularity,” said Gunawan. “[Jokowi] wanted to show that he was tough on crime, tough on drugs.”

What Gunawan and others in the Indonesia human rights community want to see is a shift, based on evidence, that the current policies have only made things worse, and a shift to focus on health.

“One of the fundamental things is to recognise that there is a failure in the Indonesian drug policy, it does not solve drug addiction and it does not reduce drug crimes,” said Gunawan.

This would, according to Lohman, bring the country back towards the ultimate problem it is trying to solve – a health crisis with drug addicts who need treatment, not imprisonment.

“The reason that we control certain substances is that we want to protect health, “said Lohman. “Countries that focus on punitive approaches have lost sight of that overarching goal.”