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FOCUS December 2004 Volume 38

Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation:Struggling for Democracy and its Own Sustainability

A. Patra M. Zen

Totalitarianism, authoritarianism, militarism and racism are the "isms" that have traditionally been the opponents of legal aid workers. These "isms" contradict the values of democracy and supremacy of just law and human rights. Many legal aid workers and activists often confront agents or actors behind these "isms". In this context, the activists of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) struggled together with civil society organizations in fighting the "New Order" led by then President Soeharto, who represented the authoritarian government in Indonesia.

LBH, the biggest legal aid organization in Indonesia, has entered the third stage of its historical development. The first stage was the establishment of the first LBH in Jakarta, a pilot project of the Indonesian Advocates Association (Peradin) on 20 October 1970. The establishment of provincial LBHs in major cities nationwide soon followed. The pilot project was started mainly because of the need to provide access to justice to the poor people in the country.

The second phase was marked by the founding of an association of dozens of LBHs. This association was named Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum) on 13 March 1980. From then on, LBH turned into an independent non-governmental organization (NGO) and no longer affiliated with Peradin. The third phase was marked by the revision on 26 September 2002 of the organization's statutes, changing an organization that was commonly considered as the 'locomotive of democracy'1 by the national media.

Thus far LBH has offices in 14 provinces. It is well-known in the media because of its noted and popular individuals who are multi-awarded (domestically and internationally) human rights fighters.

Approach to legal aid

LBH adopted the structural legal aid approach which requires that the handling of cases must address the root causes of human rights violations and poverty in general.2 Therefore, LBH has 2 strategies: litigation (handling of cases before the courts or through other legal processes) and non-litigation, including organizing mass demonstrations and media campaigns.
Currently, LBH has 5 core programs (1) advocacy before the court (litigation program); (2) human rights for women and children; (3) economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights; (4) security law reform; and (5) access to justice program. They are implemented by 3 bureaus (advocacy, research, and publication and information) and 2 directorates (publicity and international relations). LBH has identified its mission as follows:

  1. Establish, promote and disseminate the values of democratic and just law-based state, and uphold human rights in all social segments without condition;
  2. Establish and promote independent and empowered ... marginalized people in such a way that enables them to formulate, articulate and struggle for and sustain their collective and individual interests;
  3. Develop systems, institutions and other supporting instruments to increase effectiveness of the efforts to fulfill the rights of the marginalized people;
  4. Initiate, encourage, advocate and support law development programs, enforcement of legal justice and national legal reform in line with the viable Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and
  5. Promote and develop programs that contain dimension of justice in politics, socio-economics, culture and gender, particularly for the marginalized people.3

The work

Since its establishment, LBH has been handling human rights violation cases and criminal cases in general. Most of the cases handled by LBH are related to violations of civil and political rights such as torture, arbitrary detention, extra-judicial killing or involuntary disappearances. Aside from civil and political rights cases, LBH also handled environmental, land and labor rights cases. Data for the 1995-1999 period show several thousands of cases handled. Since October 2003, LBH classifies cases into civil and political rights cases, and economic, social and cultural rights cases. This division is based on international human rights law standards.

Aside from its role of advocating for the rights of the poor in Indonesia, LBH has been linked to the broader democracy issue in the country.

One wrote that "... at the beginning of 1990s LBH was even named as the locomotive for democracy.... Almost every day many activists ranging from students, labor[er]s, urban poor... and the like thronged [the LBH] office..." .4 The writer asserted that LBH was the source of opposition to the ruling government:

...some Political Parties participating in the 1999 general election were declared in this place including the Democratic People Party (PRD) and Indonesian Democratic Union Party (PUDI). It implies that LBH at the beginning of 1990s was really the central place in which many groups met in their attempts to oppose openly ... the Soeharto's regime. The existing groups were still small in number... From the [LBH] office ..., the schemes of actions to counter ... evictions nationwide were planned.

... in other words, [LBH] was no longer [a] simple place to file a complaint [for] poor civilians but also [a] place for pro democracy activists of various groups to gather...5


In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of LBH in 1995, Professor Daniel S. Lev, a senior lecturer in Washington University, said that the emergence of LBH in the 1970s was a sort of experiment. But the experiment worked out well. Lev even said that the continuing existence of LBH has encouraged the NGO movement in Indonesia. He said that "... when LBH was founded in 1970s, many predicted that LBH would only survive for five years at maximum. Thus, it is [an] unpredictable thing to note that LBH has survived for 25 years."6

LBH has been facing many challenges all throughout its existence.

Implementing the structural legal aid approach has its risks. The addition of non-court activities including organizing and educating clients and poor members of society to its core competence of advocacy in courts posed a problem. This approach decreased the quality of technical and legal skills of some of its legal aid workers in handling cases in court, compared to those of the senior advocates of the 1970s and 1980s.

In addition to this risk, the structural legal aid (BHS) approach made LBH workers the target of Soeharto regime. Often, LBH workers have to support other colleagues whenever the iron-fist Soeharto regime considered them enemies for pleading farmers' or poor workers' interests. Physical and mental harassment or even torture by members of the police and military were part of the daily hazard under the Soeharto regime.

But the post-Soeharto era has not been free of such problems. For instance, in 2001 many LBH activists were the target of violence.7 In Medan, LBH Director Irham Buana Nasution was shot with a poisonous arrow by unknown perpetrators on 11 April 2001. He was attacked in his office in Medan. Five years earlier, in April 1996, the LBH Medan office was burned down by unidentified people a day after pro democracy activists staged rallies in response to a general election.

On 12 April 2001, a number of unidentified people attacked the van of LBH Bandung Director Haneda Lastoto near the LBH Bandung office. The perpetrators also stole the documents of Lastoto's clients, the 13 suspects in a bombing case.

On 13 April 2001, members of the Jakarta Police Precinct attacked the LBH office in Jakarta. They hurled stones and used batons to destroy four glass windows. Five of them entered the Adam Malik room where a Legal Aid Training session (Kalabahu) - a training for cadres of LBH Jakarta - was being held. The assault occurred following their attempt to arrest the demonstrators staging anti-military rallies near LBH. Some demonstrators took shelter at LBH. 10 of the student activists were beaten up inside the Adam Malik room. An eyewitness lost consciousness due to the shock of seeing real acts of torture. Demonstrators normally take cover at the LBH whenever they clash with members of the police and military.

On 20 July 2001, a joint team from Aceh Police and Aceh Besar Police Precincts in a truck and three cars attacked the LBH Banda Aceh. They forcibly arrested LBH Banda Aceh Director Rufriadi and his staff (Arie Maulana and Bantam, a student activist). They ordered them to take off their clothes and lie face down at the yard of LBH Banda Aceh office. The assault occurred when human rights activists staged rallies on human rights violations in Aceh. The computer, banner and pictures of victims of violence exhibited at the venue of a rally were confiscated.

On the other hand, support from funding agencies plunged. The traditional donor institutions of LBH including Novib and USAID no longer provide support. The so-called "block grant" for NGOs, once a symbol of opposition to the New Order regime, was stopped. The exploration of financial support from domestic sources was belated as focus was directed at challenging the New Order regime. Fortunately, LBH was able to secure support from other sources (such as the Canadian International Development Agency [CIDA], the Partnership Governance Reform in Indonesia [P G R I] and local donations from the public) to implement several programs. Another program will be supported by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAid).

A number of staff members who had worked in LBH for years had to put up with dismissals without proper severance pay. They had worked in LBH without regular monthly salary. Thanks to the support of international and domestic NGOs, LBH staff members are able to participate in advocacy and networking programs of such institutions as the Asia-Pacific Regional Resource Center for Human Rights Education (ARRC), the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA) and USC Canada.

The survival of the organization as well as advocacy for poor people and for justice seekers free of charge are the challenges facing LBH.

Soeharto's downfall on 21 May 1998 marked more challenges. The event opened new chances and hopes to all Indonesians. Formally, the state has provided new procedures and mechanisms and new state-supported institutions. They are considered requirements of a democratic system and structure. They include direct presidential election, direct election of the governors and regents, establishment of Constitutional Court, Constitutional Commission, National Law Commission, Corruption Eradication Commission, and the like.

But the development of formal structures has yet to guarantee the protection of poor peoples' rights. Corruption goes rampant under the regional autonomy system. Worse still, following Soeharto's downfall, the intensity of communal conflict increased as in the cases of the violence against small ethnic groups, women, and poor communities.8

At the beginning of the transition period in 1998, the cases reported by the public to LBH increased significantly. Worse, assault committed by members of the state apparatus and militias, or by unidentified perpetrators, against LBH offices escalated during this period.

The structure of LBH was changed in October 2002 to meet these challenges. In the national workshop of LBH in July 2004 it was asserted that the primary program of all LBH offices now is to encourage the fulfillment and protection of economic, social and cultural rights. Of course, this does not put aside the protection of civil and political rights. Modifying Professor Lev's comment, it was really an incredible fact that LBH could survive for 34 years.

Mr. A Patra M. Zen is the Vice Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation.

For further information, please contact: Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum, Jalan Diponegoro No. 74, Jakarta 10320 Indonesia; ph (6221) 421 4226/421 4227; fax (6221) 33-01-40; e-mail: "arief patra"; ekosob@ylbhi.or. id;


1 See "Refleksi 25 Tahun YLBHI. Harus Bisa Jawab Tuntutan Masyarakat" (Reflections on 25 Years of YLBHI. It Must Be Able to Respond to Public Demands), Kompas, 12 October 1995; "Menemukan Sosok Masyarakat Madani" (Finding an Indonesian Civil Society), Kompas, 17 August 2003; Tri Agung Kristianto. "Ornop, Sebuah Citra Ketergantungan " (NGO, an Image of Dependency), Kompas, 22 January 2003; "LBH dan Demokarasi" (LBH and Democracy), GATRA Weekly Magazine, 16 March 1996 (No. 18/II).

2 See Adnan Buyung Nasution, "The Legal Aid Movement in Indonesia: Towards the Implementation of the Structural Legal Aid Concept", in ASEAN Perspectives on Human Rights and Democracy in International Relations (Manila:Center for Integrative and Development Studies and UP Press, 1995), pages 31 - 39; Ross Cranston, "Access to Justice in South and Southeast Asia," Chapter 10 in Julio Faundez, ed., Good Government and Law: Legal and Institutional Reform in Developing Countries. (London: St. Martin's Press, 1996) pages 233-257; See also Richard J. Wilson, Jennifer Rasmusen and Scott Codey, Promoting Justice. A Practical Guide to Strategic Human Rights Lawyering. International Human Rights Law Group: (Washington, 2001) pages 10-11. Text in

3 Based on "Vision and Mission of YLBHI" Text in /

4 Sharir, Bari Muchtar and Junito Drias, Perahu Retak Kelompok Pro -Demokrasi (Rocking the Boat for Pro Democracy Group"), September 25, 2002. Text in

5 Ibid.

6 "Refleksi 25 Tahun YLBHI. Harus Bisa Jawab Tuntutan Masyarakat", op. cit.

7 See Ucok Ritonga, "Sejumlah Kasus Menimpa Aktivis LBH dan Kontras" (Some Cases for LBH and Kontras Activitsts"), Tempo Weekly Magazine, 21August 2001.

8 On the violence and escalating tension in the post- Soeharto era for instance figure out Elizabeth Fuller Collins Indonesia: A Violent Culture ? Text in