UN rights chief criticises Indonesia proposal to outlaw gay, extramarital sex

United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein at the European headquarters of the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, on Dec 5, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - The United Nations human rights chief on Wednesday (Feb 7) criticised proposals in Indonesia's parliament to criminalise gay sex and extramarital sex, saying such laws could hurt the country's beleaguered LGBT community and other minorities.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said he had raised the issue with President Joko Widodo during a three-day visit to the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, where hostility toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has risen sharply in recent years.

"Discussions of (revisions to the criminal code) betray strains of intolerance seemingly alien to Indonesian culture that have made inroads here," Zeid told a news briefing, adding that he believed the proposed rules were "discriminatory".

"The hateful rhetoric against the LGBT community that is being cultivated seemingly for cynical political purposes will only deepen their suffering and create unnecessary divisions," he said.

Indonesia's parliament is currently deliberating revisions to a Dutch colonial-era criminal code, including proposals to outlaw sex outside marriage, same-sex relations, and co-habitation, all of which were previously unregulated by law.

The revisions have broad support in parliament, where few politicians have stood up for LGBT rights for fear of alienating a largely conservative voter base ahead of legislative and presidential elections next year.

"There are two important pieces of draft legislation that have been introduced to parliament that recognise and protect the rights of indigenous people and provide essential protection for victims of sexual and gender-based violence. I urge parliament to pass these important bills," Zeid said.

Many officials in President Widodo's government have said LGBT people, like other citizens, should be free from discrimination and violence. But top officials, including the president, have said that Indonesia's cultural and religious norms do not accept the LGBT movement.

Activists have raised concerns that, if approved, the new rules could violate basic rights and be misused to target minorities.

Currently, Indonesian law does not regulate homosexuality, except in the ultra-conservative Islamic province of Aceh.

Zeid, a member of the Jordanian royal family who has been in the UN post since 2014, said Indonesia was among the most progressive states in Southeast Asia on human rights.

But he also urged Jakarta to address past atrocities - like the 1965 massacre of nearly half a million suspected communists, - and human rights abuses in the easternmost province of Papua, and the use of the death penalty.

"There are some dark clouds on the horizon but ... I hope the common sense and strong tradition of tolerance of the Indonesian people will prevail over populism and political opportunism," he said.

He also pointed to Indonesia's steady economic growth but that not all Indonesians have benefited, with some local communities being driven off their land by mining and plantation companies.

"The true measure of development and economic growth should be its impact on the most vulnerable, those who have the least to begin with. The President has taken many positive steps towards social equity. Nevertheless, gaps remain in the protection of the economic and social rights of Indonesians," he said.

"Severe malnutrition has been reported in remote areas of the country, including in the highlands of Papua, and many still struggle with poverty and preventable diseases.

"Civil society actors have told us how, from the islands of Sumatra to Papua, mining and logging by large corporations have been a source of serious human rights violations against farmers, workers and indigenous communities. By and large, these projects are approved and implemented without meaningful consultation with the local communities.

"Land grabbing, environmental degradation, contamination of water supplies and resulting health hazards have ensued. Having lost control over their natural resources to corporations that wield enormous power, people spoke to me about their great frustration."

He urged the government to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, in particular those advocating on land and environmental issues, "and to see to it that they are not penalised or prosecuted for their exercise of the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly".

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