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To sell a human being

I was writing a series on the state of human rights in modern Indonesia when I was confronted with a situation that brought it all home. What follows is perhaps the most intensely personal writing I have ever published.

Sale of a Child Slave, 1871-72 Vasili Vereshchagin

Human Rights: Indonesia in the 21st Century
Patrick Guntensperger

Indonesia’s history is one of the struggle for freedom from oppression. From its ancient feudal origins, characterised by hereditary rule of small fiefdoms and conquest as the result of rivalries among warlords, the road to democracy in the archipelago once called Nusantara has been a rocky one.

After they were stumbled upon by European explorers, the islands were quickly colonised by traders in the spices that grew so abundantly in the lush tropical climate. First the English and then the Dutch exercised their power with varying degrees of brutality as they exploited the people, the islands, and the spices they coveted. Right up to the 20th Century, the Dutch continued to rule the islands as the “Dutch East Indies”, until the Japanese wrested control as part of their empire building in Southeast Asia in the early years of World War II. The Japanese conquerors were known neither for their benevolent gentleness nor their adherence to principles of human rights.

Indonesia’s post-war history starts with Soekarno, her first home-grown dictator, who was later deposed by a cartel of his generals led by Soeharto, as part of a vicious and bloody “anti-communist” purge that saw as many as 1,000,000 Indonesian citizens slaughtered, with more imprisoned in concentration camps, ostensibly for their communist leanings.

Soeharto himself, once his power was consolidated, ruled the country for thirty years with any serious opposition tending to disappear in the night after visits from his military forces. With the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990’s Soeharto’s power base began to crumble; in the midst of the instability, riots racked Jakarta, with the police and military standing by observing as gang rapes of ethnic Chinese Indonesian women, beatings, looting, and brutal atrocities were committed.

In the handful of years since then, Indonesia has undergone a relatively steady progression toward democracy. In a reaction to Soeharto’s iron rule from Jakarta, decentralisation became the order of the day, with great power and autonomy being delegated with little accountability to the provinces, regencies, and villages. After a series of party-appointed heads of state, the country held its first direct presidential election and the people overwhelmingly swept former Soeharto soldier, ex-general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono into power in 2004.

While the results are not yet official as this is being written, SBY appears to have won a second mandate in a landslide, beating his opponents Jusuf Kalla (his own vice-president) and accused human rights violator ex-general Wiranto on one ticket, and Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of the country’s erstwhile dictator Soekarno, and accused human rights violator ex-general Prabowo Subianto on the other opposing ticket.

As we approach August 17, Indonesia’s celebration of its independence, it’s worth considering just how far the country has come since Soekarno made political authoritarian control a home-grown rather than an imported commodity.

At the national political level, not that far, I’m afraid. Although SBY trounced his rivals, he has been remarkably reticent to address the issues of human rights, he has done little or nothing to deal with human rights abuses by his fellow military officers, he has done nothing to pursue any prosecutions of his former mentor Soeharto, and he turns a blind eye to the recurring allegations of rights abuses by his military in Papua and elsewhere.

SBY supported, or at least didn’t oppose, the enactment of the draconian anti-pornography bill which violates every principal of freedom of expression. Under his watch, the investigation and prosecution of the murderers of human rights activist Munir languishes, although it’s an open secret that he was murdered by military intelligence agents. Also under his watch, just this month, the police in Kupang submitted to the prosecutor’s office a dossier on certain religious figures who, in their assessment, committed religious blasphemy. In this case they are accused of having deviated from orthodox Christian doctrine and face five years imprisonment if convicted. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration to which Indonesia ostensibly subscribes.

It’s unlikely that SBY will focus any attention on human rights, given that it wasn’t a campaign issue, and he managed to acquire an overwhelming mandate despite his record of neglecting to address human rights in any real way. The fact that two vice presidential candidates who are seen internationally as gross violators of human rights contested the election, with their brutal records scarcely mentioned in the domestic press, suggests that human rights ranks fairly low on the agenda of the Indonesian people.

Indeed, it’s at the grassroots level that Indonesia needs to focus on human rights; the political leaders are, after all only a reflection of those whom they represent. That an enlightened view of human rights is alien at that grassroots level is exemplified in the following admittedly anecdotal illustration.

Just last week, my wife and I were in an outlying province to say goodbye to a dying grandmother and to arrange her funeral. While we were there, we were approached by the people of her extended family who wanted us to adopt a baby that had recently been orphaned and was being raised by a distant relative who didn’t want the illegitimate four month old boy. As we have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child for some time, we were delighted by the opportunity both to rescue a baby who was ostracised by his own people and to adopt a child for ourselves. We vowed to be the best parents possible for this little baby.

After the adoption paperwork had been started, baby supplies bought, a bedroom prepared for our new child, the family decided that they were entitled to a profit out of the exchange. As soon as they recognised that we were happy with the idea of caring for the baby, they reneged on the agreement and demanded a great deal of money to sign the adoption papers. This was clearly their plan from the outset.

We explained that we would certainly do our best over the years to provide financial assistance to the extended family, but that we couldn’t become involved with the sale of a human being. The “guardians” of the child saw this as an initial negotiating position and offered the baby for sale at a discount, or alternatively, on layaway terms.

Unable to stomach the idea of buying a child, we turned down the offer, torn between leaving the little baby to the care of these people, on the one hand, and rescuing a baby in distress on the other. With many tears and uncertainties, we ultimately decided that we couldn’t be involved in the purchase and sale of a human being, no matter how noble our intentions. Human trafficking is an abomination and a violation of human rights under any circumstances.

Human rights are clearly still not a priority in Indonesia. Until the people of Indonesia develop a sense of responsibility to humanity as a whole and a fundamental recognition that each person, no matter how poor or marginalised, simply by virtue of being a member of the human family, has dignity and inherent rights, there is little hope that the country’s politicians will prioritise those rights.

With independence, democracy came within the reach of the people of Indonesia. Human rights are still not within their grasp.


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  1. i can see how it might be easy to slip into handing money for an orphan, but at the end of the day it's the same thing as paying for any human being. poor child. you definitely did the right thing tho.

  2. I'm told that this sort of thing is relatively common here. You have to be a special kind of cockroach to sell a child; unfortunately this country crawls with them.
    The general consensus among other people in the area was that the price was somewhat excessive, but they believed that, had I better negotiating skills, I could have struck a better deal. Even those well-meaning people JUST DON'T GET IT.

  3. I have read the post and been thinking on how best to make the points that will follow.

    Human trafficking is wrong.

    The idea that a discount could be struck is one of those peversely funny moments of WTF. Not funny in a humourous way, funny in the sense of you find yourself laughing out loud and saying, "are you kidding me?" And there would be a few expletives in there for effect.

    The second point is that all adoptions done through channels such as these are subject to "facilitation" fees, right? And there are many desperate parents-in-waiting that would be willing to pay.

    The simple reality is supply and demand. If there was no demand then there would likely be a much reduced potential supply.

    The final point is, "what happens to the child now?" Do those responsible for the child modify their fee structure and then sell the youngster to someone else of questionable parenting skills, do they just cut their losses and dump the kid and the nearest orphanage, or just leave the kid on the street?

    It is clear that the government does not have the resources to deal with illegitimate or other unwanted children, it is clear that there are those who find the practice of paying to adopt abhorrent and the equivalent of child trafficking, and there are those that are willing to pay and in essence keep the practice alive.

    It is a tough one.

    I have often wondered whether I would be able to compromise my principles and justify that compromise to myself by saying that it was in the best interests of the child. The simple idea being here; it is not the child's fault that they have been born into the situation that they find themselves in and that every child deserves the best possible chances at survival and success that they can gain.

    This is an excellent piece. If you have no objections, then I might write a short piece on the dilemma and link you in as the inspiration for the piece. I thought about writing on the subject at the beginning of 2008. My wife and I had been married for more than five years and were childless and thinking about adoption. This is an issue that also came up for us.

  4. Be my guest.

    As long as we're on the subject, let me bring you up to date.

    The "guardians" of the child who offered him for sale are now explaining that they merely want to recover the costs they have incurred in caring for the baby to date. They are in the process of calculating those costs (i.e. figuring out how much they think the market will bear).

    When expressed in those terms, it makes standing on a principle seem a little fatuous. The people are desperately poor and this may well be the only way to feed the rest of the family this month, or next

    Make no mistake; in my view they are still selling a human being, and I find that reprehensible. But under the circumstances, just what would it serve to refuse to give them what they ask?

    The baby would be left with them, and they are reprehensible as well as poor, meaning that the illegitmate child would be malnourished, uneducated , and treated as a pariah by his entire village. The "guardians" would be forced to raise an infant they don't want in dire poverty.

    On the other hand, I can pay them the costs they have incurred, take the baby that my wife and I have fallen in love with and give him a life he could never otherwise have, replete with medical care, a loving family, acceptance by his peers, and everything else he is entitled to as the birthright of a human being.

    A dilemma indeed. I welcome input from anyone who believes there is a clean solution to this moral question. At this point I believe that I know what I will do, but no matter what happens, it won't be with a pristine conscience that I proceed.

    And thanks Rob. I appreciate your recognition that this, in fact, represents a genuine moral and ethical quandary. You'd be amazed at the way most people think it's a no-brainer and that the choice is easy. Whichever route they would take. And there seem to be as many who would go one way as the other.

  5. I agree with Rob about supply and demand.

    You should not encourage this market in new borns. Can you even verfiy where the baby came from? Verify its real parents? The cirumstances of its adoption?

    The other dimension to this is how would your child feel if he or she knew that you paid to adopt?

    I do not think there is much of a moral quandry here. Obeying the law is the correct action.

    Perhaps hire a lawyer to sort this out properly?

  6. Thanks, John. To answer your questions, yes, we know exactly who the parents were and in fact the baby was not bred for the purposes of meeting the market demand. This is an unfortunate situation in which the baby was born to people unprepared to raise him.

    The people who took over his care are desperately poor. They could have offered us the baby and we would have voluntarily offered some financial support for the villagers. However, that's not the way they did it. They instead requested the support directly with the implication that the baby was a bargaining chip.

    Poor judgement, bad communication skills, and a habitual inclination to negotiate. Not, in the final analysis sufficient to cause me to condemn the baby to a life of ill health, ignorance, and penury.

    We decided that we would pay to build a grave for the deceased family of the baby, and that is what the guardians wanted the money for in the first place.

    I disagree that there is no moral quandary. The "correct action" is not obvious, and whatever choice ultimately prevails will always have its critics.

    And, just for the record, as this IS a moral and ethical dilemma, the very last person I would ask to sort it out would be a lawyer. Asking a lawyer to offer moral or ethical advice is like asking a pederast to babysit.

    Thanks, though John…I really do appreciate your viewpoint.

  7. Patrick…

    I wonder if having graduated from law school makes one a lawyer? I have graduated from law school and always considered myself to be a lawyer.

    Interesting analogy between the lawyer and the pederast 😉

  8. Ask the bar association in your region! No that doesn't make you a lawyer; you're therefore exempt from my analogy.

    And I taught ethics at Osgoode Hall lawschool in Toronto many years ago. It was like teaching piano to goldfish. They couldn't care less, they'd never use the skills, they'd never grasp even the basic principles, and the very concept bored them into a coma…

    Holy shit! Having taught at a lawschool doesn't make me a lawyer, does it? Nahhhhh…..

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