Muhammad Nurkhoiron is one of Indonesia’s most influential human rights leaders, leading the way for the protection of minority rights for religious and ethnic groups across the country.
While serving as deputy chair of Indonesia’s National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM) for five years, he became the voice of the oppressed, fighting for the rights of people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, LGBT people, and women who feel threatened and violated.
Fueled by memories of his childhood, including seeing his close friend at primary school suffer from discrimination and ridiculed simply for being different, Nurkhoiron has a deep sense of empathy and strong motivation to protect the rights of others.
Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries in the world with more than 300 ethnic groups and languages across its 17,508 islands. The country has made remarkable strides in establishing democratic institutions since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. However, the country continues to face challenges in ensuring the protection of citizens’ rights and access to justice.
Marginalized groups and the poor are often unaware of their rights and unable to access the court system to file lawsuits to protect themselves from discrimination. A report from human rights watchdog Setara Institute revealed that violations of religious freedom have increased to 208 incidents in 2016 from 134 two years earlier and that acts of religious intolerance have increased to 270 in 2016 from 177 in 2014. Many of these reported incidents involved state actors such as police officers and local government officials, discriminatory laws, and indifference to intolerant behavior directed against minorities.
Advancing Protection of Citizens’ Rights
Komnas HAM was established as an independent body in 1993 shortly after the United Nations Commission on Human Rights expressed grave concern over allegations of serious human rights violations by the Government of Indonesia.
A quasi-governmental body, Komnas HAM is funded through the government yet structured so that presidential administrations and political branches cannot interfere in its primary mandate to investigate gross human rights violations. If sufficient evidence is found in an investigation, the case can be prosecuted through a human rights court formed by the Supreme Court.
Cases the Komnas HAM have investigated include the 1984 Tanjung Priok massacre, in which 100 people were reported killed, and the Trisakti University shootings in 1998, in which four students died at a demonstration demanding President Suharto’s resignation.
Due to Komnas HAM’s promotion of human rights awareness and close monitoring of government agencies, its guidance has taken root throughout Indonesian institutions and among society in general. One illustration of Komnas HAM’s role is its vocal response in 2015 to hate speech guidance issued by the Indonesian National Police, which prompted public discourse on freedom of expression issues.
In close cooperation with the Indonesian Government and civil society organizations, including legal aid organizations and universities, USAID is working to widen access to justice and human rights for the most vulnerable Indonesians. This includes protections under the law for religious and ethnic minorities, forest-dependent indigenous people in eastern Indonesia, and female victims of violence and discrimination.
USAID also partners with the private sector to build the Indonesian Government’s ability to better track and protect human rights.
From his seat on Komnas HAM, Nurkhoiron’s mantra to all of Indonesia was that “protecting diversity is essential for the protection of the country.” With USAID support, he promoted the work of Komnas HAM in promoting human rights and providing outreach and training programs across Indonesia, including guidance for local governments.
Greater awareness of discrimination was crucial to the outcome of a 2017 landmark case tried by the Indonesian Constitutional Court focusing on the recognition of minority religions; the case led to legal recognition of hundreds of previously unrecognized indigenous and ethnic religions. Before the decision, the government recognized just six religions.
Over the course of his career, Nurkhoiron took on significant risk to encourage citizens in Indonesia to respect and protect human rights. He received numerous threats that made him concerned about his and his family’s safety, but the safety of minority groups — particularly during periods of rising religious intolerance — remained one of his top priorities.
Failure to protect citizens’ rights and ensure fair access to justice exacerbates social divides in Indonesia. Leaders like Nurkhoiron are critical to safeguarding these rights and to advancing Indonesia’s reputation as an inclusive, democratic society that provides for all its people.
About the Author: Dondy Sentya is USAID’s Senior Rule of Law Advisor in Indonesia.
Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared in USAID's 2030: Ending Extreme Poverty in this Generation publication on Medium.com.