The Colonial Heritage of Human Rights in Indonesia: The Case of the Vote for Women, 1916-41

By Locher-Scholten, Elsbeth | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Colonial Heritage of Human Rights in Indonesia: The Case of the Vote for Women, 1916-41


Locher-Scholten, Elsbeth, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


To live is to knit with two strands of yarn; one from the present and one from the past.(1)

Globalization, the worldwide web of economic and cultural communications with its unifying and integrative tendencies, has done more than deeply affect the political economy (liberal markets) and the cultural patterns (mass consumption) of our time. It has also internationalized the debate on moral principles and ethical practices concerning human behaviour. Already the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first statement on the issue by the United Nations, has claimed universal validity as a "common standard of achievement".(2)

However, its universal claims became a subject of fierce debate in the 1980s. Asian and African countries often consider human rights as an "artefact of Western civilisation",(3) and this view has been reinforced by the Western linkage of human rights and financial support. The Bangkok Declaration, the report of the regional Asian meeting preceding the UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna (1993), emphasized national sovereignty and criticized the use of human rights as a precondition to development aid.(4) At the conference in Vienna, Asian countries like China and Indonesia protested vehemently against the Western-biased formulation of human fights and the concomitant moral domination of the West; they voiced their own sense of a distinctive identity in this field. Asian countries have focused on "duties" versus "rights" and on the rights of the collectivity, including the state, versus rights of the individual, describing these as "Asian values".(5) Hence, although the term "human rights" is widely accepted (by the Indonesian government, among others), the content varies according to the political and cultural context. General notions of justice may form the common ground for the international debate, but local circumstances and existing power structures, including the historical heritage, determine national practices concerning human rights. Here, as with other contemporary socio-economic issues, the global and the local meet on contested terrain.

Indonesia provides an illuminating example of the collision of global tendencies and national interventions in this field. This article will focus on one aspect of this local intervention: the heritage of history, or more accurately, of the colonial government. Although the colonial period covers just a short time span of Indonesian history and although indigenous concepts of justice and human dignity (dating from both pre-colonial and colonial times) are at the root of present-day human rights concepts in Indonesia, the colonial influence is, in my opinion, a legitimate subject of research. It offers the possibility of testing the claim of universality of human rights. In the Western world the formulation of human rights and human fights policies developed together with the formation of the nation-state.(6) Because colonial state formation followed the European pattern, albeit with hesitancies and reluctance, it is relevant to look at the genesis of human rights in a colonial context, and to consider the traces it may have left on postcolonial Indonesian state policies.(7)

To what extent is it possible to speak of a heritage of Dutch human rights policies in Indonesia? What were the colonial attitudes and opinions towards human fights that preceded post-colonial practice in Indonesia? Until now, only a limited number of authors have studied the impact of colonialism on modern human rights.(8) In Indonesia itself, the debate on human rights history has been restricted largely to the postwar period of independence.(9) If colonialism - weaving its web of communication between European and Asian and African countries - is viewed as a harbinger of globalization, these questions are even more relevant, for the answers illustrate some of the problems surrounding the universal claims of human rights.

The relationship between human rights and gender has become increasingly important, and the case study discussed below to illustrate colonial human rights policies - women's right to express political opinions and more specifically their right to vote - is drawn from that domain. …

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