By Jemma Purdey & Katharine McGregor

Source Indonesia at Melbourne

On 20 July, the judges of the International People’s Tribunal 1965 announced their findings(link is external) based on evidence presented at hearings in The Hague last year. They found the Indonesian state responsible for crimes against humanity, including the crimes of murder, enforced disappearance, imprisonment without trial, sexual violence, enslavement, denial of citizenship and hate propaganda. Foreign governments were deemed complicit in the violence. Dramatically and significantly, the judges declared that based on the attack on a specific national group – including members and sympathisers of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), members of the Indonesian National Party (PNI), and supporters of President Soekarno – the acts fell within the scope of the UN Genocide Convention. But what is the standing of the IPT and what impact might its findings have?

The IPT mirrors other people’s tribunals held around the world, beginning with the Russell Tribunal in 1967, which prosecuted the United States for crimes committed in Vietnam. People’s tribunals have often been held when there is a vacuum of legal accountability for violence in violation of international human rights norms. Richard Falk, from Princeton University, describes them as being: “created almost always in exceptional circumstances(link is external) of defiance of the most elemental constraints of international law and morality”. People’s tribunals, he says, “make crucial contributions to public awareness in situations where geopolitical realities preclude any reliance on established institutional procedures.”

As with the Russell Tribunal, these civilian-led tribunals or initiatives are often held in contexts where international opinion is not supportive of justice for those victimised. In the context of the Cold War, western governments and media were largely unsympathetic to the loss of “communist” lives in Vietnam and Indonesia. The IPT 1965 concluded that the United States, the UK and Australia were complicit in supporting the violence in Indonesia through direct actions or deliberate inaction. Describing the loss of Muslim civilian lives in Afghanistan in the so-called “War on Terror”, scholar Judith Butler explains that some lives are considered less “grievable” than others. She describes a hierarchy of victimhood that has also long applied to the case of victims of 1965.

People’s tribunals are thus moral interventions. In Tokyo, in 2000, a similar tribunal pressured the Japanese government to address the case of the “comfort women” victimised in enforced military prostitution during World War Two. The Women’s International Tribunal in Tokyo resulted in public international acknowledgement of the women’s suffering, a permanent record of the women’s testimony, and the only legal judgement to date to find in the women’s favour(link is external).


The IPT, like all such initiatives, is not legally binding, rather it takes the form of a mock tribunal. It sought to acknowledge the human rights violations that survivors and their family members endured. Fifty-one years after the violence began, there has yet to be official public acknowledgement of these violations. Second, the tribunal sought to build on the work of the National Commission of Human Rights(link is external) and the National Commission on Violence Against Women(link is external) to produce a new account of the violence, which goes some way towards truth-telling. Third, it determined – based on evidence and in accordance with Indonesian and international law – what kinds of crimes against humanity were perpetrated and which parties were responsible. In doing so, the tribunal served many functions that Indonesian government institutions have been unable to fulfil.


Indonesian politicians, including the former Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan, predictably dismissed the tribunal(link is external) the same day its findings were released. The former general claimed that the ITP was a foreign initiative, or an initiative carried out by “traitors” to the nation. These accusations overlook the fact that Indonesian activists were the key instigators of the initiative, and they worked within the framework of Indonesian laws that promise protection of human rights and redress for abuses of these rights. Indonesian human rights activists, lawyers, academics and journalists provided crucial support to the tribunal. Further, the tribunal was supported by survivors of violence, all of whom were Indonesian by birth.


Indicative of this sentiment were the emotional responses of victims to the report. Former political prisoner Martin Aleida, who testified at the IPT, told the media(link is external): “I was quite emotional when the judge stated that this was genocide. I think that this is an extraordinary ruling.” As with the Tokyo Tribunal, it is the victims of these crimes who seek out and receive validation and moral justice from this process, if nothing else.


The tribunal was initially held in The Hague in the Netherlands because of the symbolism of this city as the location of the International Criminal Court, but also because threats and intimidation related to 1965 activism meant it could not be safely held in Indonesia. As we have previously commented, this was weighed up with the risk of holding the tribunal in the Netherlands, Indonesia’s former coloniser. The location of the trial has been an ongoing focus for commentary from Vice President Jusuf Kalla, Luhut, and others. But Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi(link is external) indicated that her office understood the Dutch government played no part in the IPT. Crucially, intimidation of those involved in the IPT and other efforts to speak out about 1965 has continued since the tribunal was held in November.

Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) lawmaker Eva Sundari was one of the first politicians to back the tribunal. She called on the government(link is external) to heed the findings, as well as those of the twosymposiums earlier this year, to establish a truth and reconciliation commission.

On Monday, the National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM) welcomed the findings in light of the fact that most gross violations of human rights it has investigated have failed to progress past the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation and legal resolution(link is external). Despite the ongoing rejection of the case and the tribunal(link is external) by Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo, who continues to make the ridiculous claim that he doubts any perpetrators, victims or witnesses are still alive, Komnas HAM hopes to use the findings to further petition him to act on its landmark 2012 report(link is external) on the 1965 case.

National Defence Institute head Agus Widjojo, who led the national symposium on 1965 in April,recommended on 26 July(link is external) that government officials not to be so reactive in responding to the non-legally binding judgement of the IPT. Rather they should view the findings as a reminder of Indonesia’s homework and study them “as materials for finding a solution to this case”. The support of Komnas HAM and select Indonesian politicians is significant but not enough to promote consensus on the need for a resolution that will satisfy all.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s surprise appointment of retired General Wiranto – who has been accused of serious human rights abuses in East Timor – as the new coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs does not bode well for future attention to human rights violations in Indonesia.

Next steps

IPT coordinator Nursyahbani Katjasungkana has made it clear that if the Indonesian government does not seek to address these crimes against humanity, then the IPT team will take the report to the UN Human Rights Council. In the face of “ongoing and continuous [terus menerus] state denial”, she explained, the victims must continue to seek resolution by other means.

The Human Rights Council will conduct its universal periodic review of human rights in Indonesia in May next year. The process(link is external), which is held once every five years, provides each state with the opportunity to declare what actions they have taken to fulfil their human rights obligations. The IPT 1965 report will be submitted as an alternative record to be considered by the Council.

So could the petition to the Human Rights Council have an impact? In recent years, the Council has examined significant human rights violations in places including Iran, Syria, North Korea and South Sudan. Through its special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, it has also investigated historical cases, including the Spanish Civil War and the 40 years of dictatorship that followed, and “The Troubles”(link is external) in the UK and Northern Ireland. These investigations and consultations are, however, pursuant on the government of the UN member state extending an invitation to the special rapporteur.

Indonesia is still some years away from seeking an independent assessment of how it is dealing with its own particular dark past. In the meantime, the IPT 1965 report serves as the single most significant moral statement representing the crimes inflicted against so many.

  • Katharine McGregor, ARC Future Fellow University of Melbourne
  • Jemma Purdey is a Research Fellow at Monash University and Deakin University