War on Drugs in RI: Demonizing The Most Vulnerable

Feb 29, 2016 Opini

This piece was written by Martin Lundqvist and Ricky Gunawan and was published in The Jakarta Post on 12 December 2008.


When arriving at the international terminal of Soekarno-Hatta Airport, Jakarta, the first tangible impression is the huge neon sign reading \”Welcome to Indonesia — Death Penalty for Drug Traffickers!\” This sign is indicative of the Indonesian government\’s policy on drugs, which has resulted in the adoption of a \”war on drugs\” law, as well as in stigmatizing and discriminating against the domestic drug user community.

According to Law No. 22/1997 on Narcotics anyone handling narcotics is a criminal. This means that the drug dealer, the drug trafficker and the drug user are liable for criminal prosecution. There is no doubt that the drug trafficker should be prosecuted and punished, but the drug user? The government claims to have adopted a \”war on drugs\” — a war which has resulted in criminalizing and stigmatizing some of the most vulnerable people in society — the drug addicts.

This law has been accompanied by several government-initiated advertising campaigns, the basic tenet of which is to portray the drug addict as the antithesis of \”goodness\”. S/he is portrayed as a sinful person who will end up in hell, contrasting with the \”good citizen\” who will go to heaven in the afterlife. The drug user is additionally depicted as inhuman and is virtually demonized in these campaigns.

As a natural consequence of this law and the advertisement campaigns, discrimination against drug users is a common feature in Indonesian public life — most notably seen in the relationship between the police and the drug user. It seems many police have a quota of arrests to meet every month — arrests which are disproportionately aimed at drug users.

Additionally, they are often arrested and then asked for money in order to be released. Given that the average salary for the police is only around Rp 3 million (US$241.35) per month, this is an easy way to increase their income. In their interactions with drug users the police often use torture, threats and illegal detention as a means to gain confessions of alleged crimes or for payment of bribes.

Torture practices are especially experienced by female drug users. They are frequently subjected to sexual harassment from the police. It is common knowledge amongst the women that in order for them to be released they must provide sexual services to the police. In their daily language this is referred to as: tukar body (exchange body). In practice then, their options are restricted to paying money, providing sex services, or staying detained.

The drug user is an ideal victim for abuse of power, since very few of them are likely to file complaints about police misconduct. This is partially so because many of them have internalized the values of the \”war on drugs\” campaigns, and feel they somehow deserve to be tortured.

They also have a widespread fear of the police — a fear which is highly rational given the normal (violent) pattern of interactions between the police and the drug user. Therefore, the police enjoy almost full impunity when it comes to violating the human rights of drug users.

Sadly, very few legal aid and human rights organizations advocate against torture when the victim is a drug user. They are worried that this might negatively affect their \”good image\” as human rights defenders. This is regrettable, but also quite understandable, when considering the perception most Indonesians have of drug users, which is condemning, to say the least. However, defending human rights should be about defending every human being\’s rights — regardless of their sex, race, gender, religion or social status.

As mentioned, large sectors of the Indonesian public hold strongly disapproving attitudes toward the drug user, attitudes which (to a large extent) derive from the government\’s demonizing campaigns. Drug users are considered to be sinful and should therefore be excluded from the environment of the \”good citizens\” — including education and health institutions. The consequence of this is that many schools have a strict admissions policy where prospective students have to pass a urine test in order to prove that they are \”clean\”.

When it comes to healthcare, drug users are often treated in a demeaning manner by doctors and health care personnel. For example, they are frequently asked questions such as: \”why do you want to get sick? You know drugs make you sick, still you use it\”. The drug user has to endure moral condemnation which should have no place in a professional medical institution.

Finally, it is important to note that drug addiction is indeed a major societal problem which needs to be combated. However, this need not include criminalizing and stigmatizing a large group of citizens. Many international examples show that it is possible to be \”hard on drugs\” while also respecting the needs and human rights of its citizens.

Heavy drug addiction is a health hazard, and the addict should be given proper medical care to help combat his addiction, rather than to be prosecuted and put in jail. Pursuant to Indonesian Law No. 11/2005, the government must recognize the right of everyone to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and thus must maximize available resources to achieve full realization of this right.

This law is derived from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Indonesia has signed and ratified. Indonesian Law No. 22/1997 unfortunately proves that the government is more concerned with its \”war on drugs\” than with the health and human rights of some of its most exposed citizens.

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