Respecting Indonesia’s Sovereignty: Why the Western World Should Let Indonesia Enforce Its Own Drug Laws

– By Christopher Linnan   March 5, 2015

Broadly speaking, the Western world has become a much more liberal place since the end of World War II. Nations are no longer able to physically invade others without risking serious international backlash, colonization is now generally considered an archaic practice, liberal social policies have spread, etc. Yet, underneath this newfound tolerance is a notable tendency to believe that our modern and liberal worldview is always correct. As an American, I have seen it many times on a micro-level, ranging from people treating cigarette smokers like ignorant second-class citizens when these same critics partake in plenty of unhealthy vices themselves, to broad negative generalizations of groups of people it is still socially acceptable to stigmatize, such as Southerners, bankers, etc. Unfortunately, it still exists on a macro-level too as many Western leaders tend to attempt to impose their worldviews on other countries. This phenomenon is clearly reflected in the international uproar that has greeted Indonesia’s decision to execute foreign drug traffickers from Brazil and the Netherlands, and the still undetermined fate of the two Australians on death row from the Bali Nine. The decision by select Western countries and media outlets to protest Indonesia’s decision has strained relations between Indonesia and the aforementioned countries, especially Australia.

Over the last few months Indonesia’s decision to execute several foreign nationals convicted of drug trafficking, including ones from Brazil and the Netherlands, has caused a backlash from these countries. The Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff even refused to accept the credentials for the new Indonesian ambassador to Brazil, a serious diplomatic insult, which caused Indonesia to recall its ambassador.[i] Brazil’s reaction is fairly ironic, since Brazil’s own legal system is notoriously poor and it is a country where “widespread violence perpetrated by criminal gangs and abusive police plague many Brazilian cities.”[ii] Given the Netherland’s long and sordid past as the country that colonized Indonesia, it is almost comical that they would protest Indonesia enforcing its own laws against Dutch criminals. Furthermore, Indonesia’s recent decision to deny final appeals from the two aforementioned Australian convicts has brought widespread condemnation from Australia, culminating in Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s argument that Indonesia should give the prisoners a reprieve in return for Australia’s aid during the 2004 tsunami, which the Indonesian government angrily and unsurprisingly rejected.[iii]

Nobody who has spent a significant amount of time in Indonesia will make the argument that Indonesia’s legal system is perfect. Corruption is a major problem, and laws ranging from traffic violations to environmental regulations are flouted with impunity. One of my fellow teachers recently confessed that he would never call the police unless he was the victim of a very serious crime because he fears getting shaken down in return for the crime being solved. However, with the exception of the province Aceh, which uses a limited form of Sharia law, Indonesia’s political and legal system is based on secular values[iv] and thus cannot be dismissed as the product of radical Islam, even if critics might have you believe otherwise. Furthermore, there is no doubt whether the aforementioned drug traffickers are guilty, rather the question is if Indonesia has the right to execute foreign drug dealers. Indonesia is well-known for its strict drug laws as its airports are full of warnings that drug trafficking offenses carry the death penalty and even customs declaration cards carry the ominous threat that drug traffickers face the death penalty. Anti-drug signs and speeches are a regular part of life at an Indonesian high school and drugs, even marijuana, are considered completely taboo. Of course, drugs exist and people abuse them, but in my own experience, the Indonesian approach is very different from the West, where many drugs are illegal, but young peoples’ drug experimentation is often tacitly accepted.

I do not believe that drug traffickers should be given the death penalty; however, my opinion is irrelevant as I am not an Indonesian citizen, and even if I were the majority of Indonesians disagree with me.[v] This article is not attempting to argue that countries should adopt the death penalty for drug trafficking, but we should avoid trying to impose our more liberal views about drugs on other countries. Trafficking large amounts of heroin is considered a very serious crime worldwide including in the countries that have abolished the death penalty. The National Institute on Drug Abuse summarizes the effects of the drug as “once a person becomes addicted to heroin, seeking and using the drug becomes their primary purpose in life.”[vi] Hopefully, I do not have to devote any more time persuading the reader that heroin is a terrible drug and that Indonesia has a right to protect itself from drug traffickers. Some pundits have argued that Indonesia should not proceed with these executions because supposedly the death penalty does not deter drug trafficking, but the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2012 World Drug Report revealed that there is a significantly higher percentage of Australians who abuse marijuana, amphetamine-type stimulants, and opioids (heroin, morphine, etc) than Indonesians.[vii] This makes intrinsic sense as the more serious the punishment for breaking a law the less likely people will do so. Obviously, there are other factors at work here as well, as many countries with less stringent laws have less drug abuse, but Indonesia should be free to combat drug dealers how it sees fit, and even if its methods are inefficient that is Indonesia’s problem, not ours.

According to The Economist’s 2012 Index of Democracy, the only Muslim-majority countries that are functioning democracies are Senegal, Malaysia, and Indonesia.[viii] Unfortunately, this list is unlikely to grow significantly in the future as the Arab Spring has not led to the expected growth in democracy, if anything the opposite has occurred. Thus, it makes sense for the West to do everything in its power to build strong relations and support the aforementioned Muslim-majority democracies, even if they are imperfect. Trying to interfere in a country’s legal system will only have adverse effects, even if the death sentences are commuted, as we risk alienating the Indonesian people, the majority of whom support the death penalty of drug traffickers[ix] and most likely do not want foreign countries interfering in their justice system. This should only be acceptable if there is a real injustice, but facing the consequences after being caught with a large amount of heroin or other narcotics is not an injustice and it is not worth damaging bilateral relations. Bob Carr, the former Australian foreign minister, put it best when he said “to produce a nationalist backlash in Indonesia would be terrible for Australia’s future in Indonesia and I really think in South-East Asia.”[x]

We expect immigrants and visitors to respect our laws, so it seems a little perverse to assume that our citizens will not be held to the same standard when travelling abroad. Indonesia is a much more conservative place than Australia, the Netherlands, etc, so if foreigners find this abhorrent, they should avoid traveling or visiting here, especially if they intend to engage in illicit activity. The only country which should be worried about how Indonesia deals with drug traffickers is Indonesia. Trying to influence domestic policy in other countries through coercion and cajoling may provide a short-term political popularity boost in your own country, but it is not a long-term formula for success, and we must respect Indonesia’s legal system. Otherwise the West risks permanently alienating Indonesia and similar countries by trying to strong-arm them into adopting our legal rules and ethics, which is bad for Indonesia, but even worse for us.

[i] Helen Brown, “Indonesia Withdraws Ambassador to Brazil as Dispute Over Executions Deepens,” Australia Broadcasting Corporation 21 February 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-21/indonesia-withdraws-ambassador-to-brazil-in-a-sign-of-a-deepeni/6176370, accessed 2 March 2015.

[ii]“World Report 2012: Brazil,” Human Rights Watch 2012, http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-brazil, accessed 1 March 1, 2015.

[iii] “Bali Nine Row: Indonesia ‘Owes Australia’ for Tsunami Aid,” British Broadcasting Corporation 18 February 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-31513131, accessed 2 March 2015.

[iv] Robin Shulman, “Indonesia Falls Fast to Secular Politics,” Washington Post 9 April 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/08/AR2009040804077.html, accessed 3 March 2015.

[v] Gabriel Dominguez and Srinivas Mazumdaru, “Bali Nine Duo-Jokowi’s Growing Predicament,” Deutsche Welle 24 February 2015, http://www.dw.de/bali-nine-duo-jokowis-growing-predicament/a-18275036, accessed 2 March 2015.

[vi] “What are the Long-term Effects of Heroin Use,” National Institute on Drug Abuse November 2014, http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-long-term-effects-heroin-use, accessed 2 March 2015.

[vii] “World Drug Report 2012,” United Nations 2012, http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/WDR2012/WDR_2012_web_small.pdf, accessed 2 March 2015.

[viii]“Democracy Index 2012,” The Economist 2013, http://pages.eiu.com/rs/eiu2/images/Democracy-Index-2012.pdf, accessed 31 January 2015.

[ix] Dominguez, “Bali Nine Duo.”

[x] Jason Om, “Bali Nine: AFP Faces Bitter Recriminations Over its Involvement in Arrests,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation 17 February 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-17/afp-faces-criticism-over-its-involvement-in-bali-nine-arrest/6132160, accessed 2 March 2015.

About the author: Chris Linnan is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. He graduated from Emory University in May 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Respecting Indonesia’s Sovereignty: Why the Western World Should Let Indonesia Enforce Its Own Drug Laws

  1. Chris,

    This is exceptionally well-written! As a former Peace Corps volunteer in Indonesia, I’m happy to see peers defending Indonesia’s sovereignty. Thank you for the food for thought.

    • I was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Indonesia with Sarah and I totally agree her comment above. Great post!

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