Indonesia's War on Drugs: On Capital Punishment and How it Harms Public Health and Human Rights

30/06/2016 16:09 | Updated 30 June 2016

Prior to the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on 26 June, it was announced that Indonesia is to execute 16 prisoners after the Holy Month of Ramadan. No names have been announced, although several foreign nationals are feared to be amongst those who will be executed, putting Indonesia back under the international spotlight. In 2014, 14 drugs convicts were executed, amongst them were 12 foreign nationals. Some of them were Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who led the Bali Nine drug smugglers, putting the diplomatic tie under strain. Frenchman Serge Atlaoui was removed from the list at the last minute upon government's appeal - French President François Hollande warned Indonesia on diplomatic consequences. As of December 2014, there were a total of 136 people on death row, amongst them 64 drug convicts. Currently, those on death row including a British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford, who was sentenced to death in Bali in 2013.

Indonesia's state philosophy of Pancasila calls for just and civilised humanity and social justice. The country guarantees the right to life in Article 28A of its 1945 Constitution and Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1999. Indonesia is also a party to ICCPR. While Article 6 of the ICCPR does prohibit capital punishment in most serious cases, the UN Human Rights Committee, who is responsible for the authoritative interpretation of the Covenant, has emphasised that drug-related offences has failed to meet such cases. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak, in the report number A/HRC/10/44 stated that that death penalty on drug offenders amounts to a violation of the right to life and human dignity. However, the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Indonesia, in its Decision No. 2-3/PUU-V/2007 interpreted that drug offences are extraordinary, horrendous crimes and thus capital punishment is needed as an effective and maximum punishment. They also argue that the application of human rights in the 1945 Constitution can be limited. The court's problematic reasoning and decision have consequently led the country to retain its draconian law for drug offences. However, there has been no credible evidence demonstrating that capital punishment deters drug trafficking. Worse still, death sentences are often made after unfair legal processes and trials, putting people at risk of serious human rights violations.

The drug problem in Indonesia is not just a public health matter. It relates to politics and various lawmakers are in support of capital punishment. President Joko Widodo declared war on drugs after he was sworn in in 2014. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he stated the country is in a narcotics emergency, citing that 50 young Indonesians die from drugs every day. He stated he will never grant clemency for drug convicts. President Joko Widodo's tough stance on drugs policy, unmoved by foreign diplomacy, puts him as a defender of Indonesian sovereignty in the eyes of many citizens. However, the validity of statistics claimed by Jokowi is criticised by academics and experts for its questionable data and statistics.

Most importantly, the government's policies on drugs contribute to undermining the right to health rather than protecting public health. In March 2016, a team of medical experts consist of The Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health published a report urging an end of repressive drug policies since the 'war on drugs' has harmed human rights, development and public health. Findings show that criminalisation hinders people from seeking help for the fear of being arrested and incarcerated. When people do not seek treatment, it poses the risk of rising numbers of communicable diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C. It is also worsened by the reality of Indonesia's overcrowded prisons and limited health services, thus putting drug offenders at risk of disease transmission from unsafe injection and sex practices that will eventually lead to higher risks of disease transmission amongst the public. In Indonesia, research shows that 93% shared injection equipment in prison, where 78.6% share the needles with over 10 prisoners.

It is said that the forthcoming executions will cost approximately IDR 3.6 billion (£184,585). As researched by Weisbuch, the huge cost of capital punishment process is a grave burden and thus it should be allocated for better use in other areas of government such as investment in treatment, cost-effective health facilities, and evidence-based harm reduction programmes. Last year, Minister of Social Affairs Khofifah Indar Parawansa stated that rehabilitation centres met only 8 per cent of the national need. Many patients are referred to the capital city and some treatment programmes available sometimes include options that are not scientifically grounded. It is incredibly important to help those who suffer from drug dependence rather than punishing them - punitive measures risks further stigmatisation and putting the patients in worse socio-economic conditions. Scientific approaches to law and regulations are essential in drug policy-making. Failure in providing health treatment and services for people with drug dependence is undermining their human right to health.

Addressing the drug problem by retaining capital punishment raises serious massive human rights violations and puts public health at higher risk. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Dainius Pūras, published an open letter stating that in moving towards the fulfilment of the right to health, punitive measures on drugs use must end. If President Jokowi is to fix the drugs problem, he should employ human rights-based legal responses and evidence-based public health policy and measures, consistent with the spirit of health and human rights norms to protect the wellbeing of its citizens.