Remarks in Jakarta on Democracy, Equal Rights, and Accountability

Remarks
Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Jakarta, Indonesia
December 8, 2015


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Key Points

 

  • Staying true to core democratic principles of equal rights and accountability for all makes our countries not only more inclusive and just, but more competitive and secure in the 21st century.
  • When hateful voices condemn different political or religious groups, government must protect them from discrimination and violence. When bureaucrats look for excuses to discriminate against those who wish to express themselves or delay their right to build a place of worship, civil society must speak up. True democracy does not give way to a politics of fear or discrimination against difference.
  • The trademark of democracy is not whether the majority prevails, but how it balances the interests of the majority with the rights of all. Law provides the framework for ensuring this balance. That means both enacting laws consistent with democratic principles and enforcing the law regardless of who violates it.
  • Addressing deep-rooted corruption or injustice might not have been possible during many periods of our history, and powerful interests do not always welcome the laws being applied equally to all. But true accountability often means shining a light in dark places and uncovering truths many would prefer to leave alone -- from the legacy of slavery in the United States to Indonesia’s own dark period of violence in 1965.
  • Citizens are a critical but often overlooked resource in promoting greater justice and accountability -- from directly monitoring government processes to defending anti-corruption bodies when they face backlash from powerful interests.
  • Our democracies need a strong civil society to continue raising hard questions, engaging citizens, and pushing our governments to become more accountable, inclusive, and transparent.

Date: 12/09/2015 Location: Jakarta, Indonesia Description: Under Secretary Sewall speaks about equal rights and accountability at Binusatra University in Jakarta. - State Dept Image

Hello everyone. Selamat pagi! My name is Sarah Sewall, and I serve in the U.S. Department of State as the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

Let me begin by thanking Binus University for inviting me to speak with you all today. For over forty years, this university has helped prepare the next generation of scholars, entrepreneurs, and innovators to build Indonesia’s future.

And that future looks bright. Over the last fifty years, Indonesia has seen remarkable economic and political progress. Its share of the global economy has more than tripled. Life expectancy has grown by over 20 years. Following a long period of authoritarian rule, Indonesia has emerged as one of the largest democracies in the world. And last year, over 130 million Indonesians peacefully voted to choose their president and legislature.

But we must remember that this story of progress was not written in stone. It was forged by the courage and determination of countless citizens pushing to build a more democratic and inclusive society where everyone -- from the highest ranking official to the nasi goreng vendor on the street -- has equal rights and accountability under the law.

Although the process of democracy -- the campaign rallies and voting booths -- often receive the most attention, it is these underlying principles of equality and accountability that give democracies power and meaning. Changing times and new challenges can test these principles, and democracies must evolve to address the people’s needs while holding fast to their fundamental values.

Just as America’s founders could not imagine the modern world of today, the young Indonesians marching for reform in '98 could not foresee the issues your country now faces -- from an intensely competitive global economy to the rise of violent extremism to the perils of climate change. But they believed that a democratic society rooted in equal rights, the rule of law, and accountability would provide the stability and resilience to face any future challenges.

That is what I would like to discuss today – how staying true to democratic principles makes our countries not only more inclusive and just, but more competitive and secure in the 21st century.

In the United States, our incredible diversity is a source of pride and strength. We are a nation of immigrants, and the fabric of our society—our culture, economy, politics, and everyday life—is made stronger by contributions from all regions, religions, and ethnic groups. Likewise, Indonesia is defined by diversity: more than 17,000 islands, 300 ethnic groups, and many different faiths that enrich and strengthen your nation. Indonesia’s philosophy of Pancasila reflects this diversity by recognizing the six major faiths in the country. At the same time, your constitution guarantees the freedom of religion for all. Because in the end, what holds our diverse societies together is equal rights and protections under the law. Equal rights give every citizen a stake in their nation and bind them together.

Date: 12/09/2015 Location: Jakarta, Indonesia Description: Under Secretary Sewall meets with students at Binusatra University in Jakarta. - State Dept Image

But let us be frank -- in our diverse societies, differences and disagreements are inevitable. Sometimes they are ugly, especially when cynical extremists seek to exploit what divides us. In these cases, what matters is how citizens and governments respond. When hateful voices condemn different political or religious groups, government must protect them from discrimination and violence. When bureaucrats look for excuses to discriminate against those who wish to express themselves or delay their right to build a place of worship, civil society must speak up. True democracy does not give way to a politics of fear or discrimination against difference.

In the United States, when police mistook a Muslim student’s homemade clock for a bomb, President Obama spoke out and welcomed him to the White House. Here in Indonesia, when extremists burned down a Protestant church in Aceh this past October, or when a mob attacked a mosque in Papua in July, President Jokowi condemned the attacks and ordered local officials and security services to strengthen protections for religious minorities. The trademark of democracy is not whether the majority prevails, but how it balances the interests of the majority with the rights of all.

Law provides the framework for ensuring this balance. That means both enacting laws consistent with democratic principles and enforcing the law regardless of who violates it. This is a fundamental point: the rule of law is not just about having laws, but also implementing them. That is the role of police and of judges, and the integrity and effectiveness of these institutions is every bit as important as the letter of the law.

Upholding law is hard and often controversial. Just last week, one of the most powerful politicians in New York State was convicted for fraud, extortion, and money laundering. This conviction was not a failure but evidence of the strength of our self-correcting, democratic, rules-based system. We’ve also seen recent cases of police violence, especially against minority groups -- and our police and courts are now being forced to reckon with their own behavior.

Addressing deep-rooted corruption or injustice might not have been possible during many periods of our history, and powerful interests do not always welcome the laws being applied equally to all. But true accountability often means shining a light in dark places and uncovering truths many would prefer to leave alone -- from the legacy of slavery in the United States to Indonesia’s own dark period of violence in 1965. In fact, Americans today are still demanding the retirement of symbols of our racist past; just as some in Indonesia watch out for a return of rhetoric from the nation’s violent past.

In recent years, the Indonesian government has taken significant steps to promote greater justice and accountability within its own institutions. For example, it separated the National Police from the military to strengthen civilian oversight. It established the Corruption Eradication Commission, the KPK, an independent institution charged with investigating and prosecuting cases of corruption no matter the obstacle or status of the offender. The body has received global praise for its work, and many countries now study it as a model.

The Indonesian government has also sought to make government more responsive and transparent to citizens, from how it answers complaints and requests for information, to how it oversees procurement processes and extractive industries. The push to simplify bureaucracy can both promote business and reduce opportunities for corruption.

These efforts go hand-in-hand with one of our key areas of cooperation with Indonesia: the Open Government Partnership -- a global platform that helps 69 countries around the world improve transparency and accountability between governments and citizens.

Citizens are a critical but often overlooked resource in this work. Civil society groups can serve as a powerful force for greater transparency and accountability in public life -- from directly monitoring government processes to defending anti-corruption bodies like the KPK when they face backlash from powerful interests.

Indonesia is lucky to be blessed with a vibrant and active civil society, during my visit I met with representatives of impressive groups like the Indonesian Corruption Watch, and the Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy. As you all think about how to spend your time after graduation, you should consider supporting groups like these by contributing your time, energy, and ideas -- and if you become fabulously successful business people -- your resources.

Our democracies need a strong civil society to continue raising hard questions, engaging citizens, and pushing our governments to become more accountable, inclusive, and transparent. As future business leaders, the work of civil society will be directly relevant to yours. After all, accountability and the rule of law are vital for a healthy private sector. One study revealed that corruption adds up to ten percent to the cost of doing business around the world.

In both the United States and Indonesia, small and medium businesses represent over 50 percent of GDP, and corruption hurts these businesses the most. Because they have smaller margins, the costs of corruption can often push them to bankruptcy. You know the stories -- a construction company that won’t pay kickbacks has trouble getting a contract. A warung owner closes shop because she can’t pay a bribe to pass inspection. The cousin of the government regulator gets the necessary permits while his competitors shut down. When these businesses lose, consumers and taxpayers lose as well.

You can help change that by creating a culture where success is determined by your innovation, your hard work, and your character – not by participating in corruption. In that environment, foreign businesses will be more eager to invest, creating additional jobs and opportunities for Indonesians. In that spirit, we welcome President Jokowi’s recent announcement that Indonesia would seek to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the TPP. This landmark trade agreement includes strong commitments to transparency and the rule of law, creating powerful incentives to reduce corruption in both business and government. It will also strengthen ties between the United States and Indonesia by bringing our economies closer together.

As President Obama leads the United States through a “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific,” our nations’ ties will only grow stronger. That is why, after President Jokowi’s recent meeting at the White House, the two leaders announced that we would elevate our relations to a Strategic Partnership.

And as partners, we will face a host of challenges. Some we know -- like countering global terrorism, ending human trafficking, and curbing global climate change. Others, we cannot predict. We do know that our own practice of democratic values -- to equal rights, the rule of law, and accountability -- will be tested.

As future graduates of one of the country’s best schools, you have a privileged role in deciding how Indonesia will respond to is next challenges. You are launching your careers at an amazing time in Indonesia’s history, enjoying freedoms and wealth that your parents could never have imagined. Your opportunity, your responsibility, is to defend the democratic values for which they struggled and push onward to realize their vision of a more open, accountable, and ultimately stronger Indonesia.

Thank you, terima kasih, and congratulations to all of you who will be graduating next spring.