Indonesia’s New Criminal Code: A New Era of Conservatism?


Indonesia’s new criminal code has been making international headlines since the beginning of December. The parliament’s efforts to pass a new, post-colonial criminal code since the colonial Dutch administration has been met with contentious reactions – predominantly those of dissent. This new criminal code affects several aspects of Indonesian life, ranging from adultery – which has gotten the most attention; blasphemy; political expression, and the right to protest.

The code was officially passed in the parliament on Tuesday December 6th 2022. It outlines several actions that will now be punishable as a crime. These include, insulting the president or national institutions; blasphemy; protesting without prior notification, and an expanded adultery act which prevents premarital sex and cohabitation. The final spanner to the works concerning these new regulations, is that these new laws are applicable to both Indonesians and foreigners. 

Adultery in marriage, and premarital sexual intercourse are now punishable by up to one year in prison; those found guilty of premarital cohabitation may be imprisoned by up to six months. Interestingly, crimes categorised under the adultery act can only be legally pursued if they are reported to authorities by a spouse, parent or child – further raising controversies around the right to privacy. Publication of the proposed laws back in 2019, stirred several protests among Indonesians. International human rights groups have also raised their concerns surrounding the actual implications of implementing this new code.

Although Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, it is still a constitutionally secular country. Hence the uproar surrounding the passing of very conservative laws. Many concerns have been raised regarding the state of human rights within this criminal code, especially for minority groups such as women and the LGBTQIA+ community. The internationally protected rights to privacy, choice and association may be significantly breached following the day-to-day enforcement of this code.

Economically, its applicability to foreigners may pose unprecedented economic costs, within the foreign investment and tourism industries respectively. Firstly, Indonesia is home to one of the most globally coveted tourist destinations, Bali. Tourists from all over the world flock to Bali during vacation seasons, due to its natural beauty and affordability in comparison to other vacation destinations. However, these new laws could disincentivize travel to Indonesia, and even have spill-over effects on other forms of foreign investment.

As reactions to this code continue to overwhelm the parliament, several Indonesian parliament representatives have argued that the expansion of the adultery code in specific, will strengthen the institution of formal marriage. Additionally, the Deputy Minister of Law and Human Rights emphasised a progressive transition from existing colonial laws to the new criminal code over a period of three years at most.

This unanimous adoption of the criminal code within the Indonesian parliament has been a catalyst for discourse surrounding topics such as, the rise of state and religious conservatism in the ‘modern democracy’ and the resurgence of authoritarian regimes. Many interpret these new laws as undermining democratic freedoms that specifically disenfranchise and ‘morally police’ minority groups. Within other spaces, this has also been described as negative state paternalism, since many cannot see any possible benefits.

As Indonesia’s parliament’s decision continues to be scrutinised in several places, it is of great interest to see how the international community will react and possibly seek methods to review and reform Indonesia’s criminal code. In the meantime, we can ask ourselves whether Indonesia’s new criminal code is an infringement of democratic rights or whether the state has the leeway to enforce such codes.

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