On January 18, 2015, the Indonesian government executed six people, part of the infamous “Bali Nine” convicted of drug trafficking offences.
The six executed in January were from Brazil, The Netherlands, Vietnam, Malawi, Indonesia and Nigeria. Naturally, there had been calls by many parties for clemency from the Indonesian president, which he rejected. Also to be expected, the countries whose nationals had been executed condemned the killings in very strong words indeed. Nigeria included. But some did more than just issue statements. Netherlands and Brazil both recalled their ambassadors from Jakarta in protest. Nigeria? Well, we didn’t go quite that far. The Nigerian minister of foreign affairs summoned the Indonesian ambassador to, I presume, give him an earful.
And then, just a few weeks later, the Indonesian government announced it was planning to execute several more convicted drug traffickers. This next group to be executed comprised of 2 Australians, 4 Nigerians, a Filipina woman, a Brazilian and an Indonesian. You can read their individual stories here. It is immediately obvious that there are more Nigerian nationals being executed in Indonesia this year than any other nation.
More statistics on the executions can be viewed here.
Australia declared its willingness to reconsider its diplomatic relations with Indonesia if the executions are carried out. And this when relations between the two countries had just begun to improve. The full extent of Australia’s protestations, which were louder than all others, is public knowledge already and I don’t need to tell you about it.
Coincidentally, this all came at a time when Indonesia was deploying new ambassadors. It is standard international procedure that a new ambassador meet the leader of the host country’s government and present his/her credentials before formally assuming the position. However, when the new Indonesian ambassador to Brazil arrived in that country to present his credentials, the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, did not deign to meet him, despite accepting credentials from ambassadors of other countries on the same day. Angered, the Indonesian government recalled him in protest.
As is well known by now, the Indonesian government proceeded with those executions (except for the Filipina who was granted a stay of execution pending the result of a legal challenge) despite the international calls for clemency. According to the Indonesian president, other nations must learn to respect their sovereign laws.
I see three things here. First, there is the classic death penalty argument; should it be abolished or is it a necessary punishment for crimes? And, if it is a fair and necessary punishment, in what cases should it be applied? The death penalty is a hugely polarizing one which demands its own article so I won’t go into it here. It is just worth identifying that many of the arguments regarding the executions take that particular form.
Secondly, there is the argument that Indonesian law clearly states the penalties and makes visitors to their country aware of them before ever setting foot on their shores. Thus, say the proponents of this line of thinking, the people involved knew the risks and willingly went ahead despite them.
Ok, let’s look at the law. Its reasoning is that drugs are killing its citizens and therefore drug dealers are roughly equal to murderers. As Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said, 40 Indonesians die everyday as a result of drugs, which makes it a national emergency, hence the declaration of a war on drugs. To begin with, the claim of 40 people dying per day has been questioned by experts who have noted that the methodology used in coming up with this number was questionable, to say the least. But let’s not argue semantics here. If gun crimes shot up (forgive the pun), would it be acceptable to give gun runners the death penalty? But even that argument does not quiet encapsulate the nature of drugs, because guns, knives and other weapons are mostly used against other people. To paraphrase the comedian Chris Rock, “nobody sells drugs, drugs sell themselves.” People go out to seek these drugs, and then willingly self-administer them. As such, a large part of the responsibility ought to be carried by those who use these drugs. It is true that young people are particularly susceptible to drug use before they are fully aware of the consequences, but that does not quite account for the war on drugs as it is run. Fact: the youth are several times more likely to know where to acquire any substance, whether legal or illegal than an older person. Therefore, simply using policy to try to deter a certain trade in order to reduce the contraband in society is unlikely to prove effective. The principle here is that, without the people having a change of mentality, policy actions are almost certain to fail. This can be seen in the original war on drugs undertaken by the United States of America which is widely viewed as being unsuccessful, as well as terribly expensive. There is a TED Talk by Ethan Nadelmann well worth watching in which he advocates for drug policy reform for various reasons. Here are some choice quotes:
Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. People think of prohibition as the ultimate form of regulation when in fact it is the abdication of regulation, with criminals filling the void.
And, in his research, he interviewed people working in countries where the drugs come from, people working in the USA’s Drug Enforcement Agency, and customs officers working at the borders, over where they personally think the solution lies. About their answers, he said;
And it hit me…everybody involved in this thought that the answer lay in that area about which they knew the least.
I think history has proven that you cannot get rid of a drug problem by declaring war on it.
Finally, whether we believe it’s a just law or not, the argument is that it is still their law and we must simply accept it. That’s all well and good, and clearly majority of Indonesians are behind it fully, with a recent survey putting the number at 84%. So are we to acknowledge that Indonesians support the death penalty, respect their choice and stay out of their business? Well, if they showed the same respect for other countries’ laws, then it may be a point worth arguing. However, the Indonesian government has, over the years, actively tried to get its citizens off death row in other countries. The government at one point created what it called the Migrant Workers Protection taskforce, which claimed to have helped 110 Indonesians avoid the death penalty in China, Iran, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Speaking of Saudi Arabia, where Indonesia is estimated to have 45 of its citizens facing the death penalty, the Indonesian government has been known to pay blood money to relatives of victims in order to avoid having its citizens executed. It is rather unusual for a country to do this, as compensation payment is typically something that is handled between families, rather than a government getting involved. But as recently as 2013, Indonesia agreed to pay $1.87 million in compensation to a victim’s family in order to secure a reprieve for an Indonesian maid sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for the murder of her employer. This was after the Saudi king, in 2010, had agreed to postpone the Indonesian maid’s execution to allow her government time to negotiate with the victim’s family.
It is worth noting, in conclusion, that Mr Widodo’s move has been criticized as being politically motivated to raise his approval ratings. Politicians do this a lot; when they want to draw the populace to their banner, they find a subject which their constituents strongly support but is controversial to outsiders (typically the international community) and embellish it. This helps to create a feeling of “us against them” amongst the polity, and they fall enthusiastically behind their leader to “take on the world”. Case in point; Nigeria’s law against homosexuals and lesbians. This law, completely irrelevant at the time of signing, had been sitting at the president’s desk for 2 whole years, before he finally announced that he’s signing it. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, I sincerely hope that it is because of a well-considered position, rather than subject to manipulation by your local vote-seeker.