The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Indonesia’s potential to significantly guide international law has yet to be realized.

The events of Thursday, November 9, will etch themselves into the annals of international law as a day of historic proportions. The appointment of five new adjudicators to the International Court of Justice, by the consensus of the UN General Assembly and Security Council, heralded a tide of change. Notably, it marked the first instance of Russia ceding its traditional berth at the bench, while Dire Tladi and Bogdan Aurescu—illustrious legal minds from South Africa and Romania, respectively—became pioneers for their nations within the prestigious World Court.

Yet, for Indonesia—a nation of considerable heft, holding the title of the world’s fourth most populous—it sparked a reflective quandary: when might it see one of its own ascend to the ICJ’s esteemed ranks? The absence of an Indonesian judge since the court’s inception is a stark reminder of a once vibrant legacy in global jurisprudence, now seemingly in repose.

Indonesia’s legal pedigree is rooted in its formative years, under President Sukarno’s guidance, where it emerged as a central figure in international diplomacy. The Bandung Conference of 1955 was a clarion call, galvanizing Asian and African nations to repudiate colonialism and Western hegemony. In the wake of this, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja—renowned as a colossus in international law—championed a maritime regime that acknowledged archipelagic states, laying the groundwork for the New International Economic Order, or NIEO for short.

The influence wielded by Indonesia remained pronounced through the early period of Suharto’s New Order. However, its sphere of impact was curtailed, confined within the Global South, and subsequent years did not witness a resurgence. Despite Kusumaatmadja’s formidable advocacy and Nugroho Wisnumurti’s contributions, which included the eponymous guidelines for UN Secretary-General candidates in 1996, Indonesia’s voice in the realm of international law has been on the wane.

This is not to detract from the sterling efforts of Indonesian diplomats who have striven to position the country as a mediator for global stability, adhering to its principle of independent and active engagement in international affairs. Nevertheless, its specific contributions to international law appear to be, to put it mildly, in need of rejuvenation.

The absence of Indonesian jurists from the benches of the ICJ and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is a poignant testament to this decline. Unlike other UN entities, these institutions are havens for scholarly legal minds, not merely professional diplomats. To secure a seat within these hallowed halls, a nation must proffer legal scholars whose expertise can rival the West’s entrenched dominance—a challenge that has long stymied Indonesia, especially in the wake of Kusumaatmadja and Wisnumurti’s passing.

Addressing this dearth is neither a simple nor expeditious task. Despite a plethora of universities producing a legion of law graduates, an Indonesian presence on these courts remains elusive—a fact that stands in stark contrast to the successes of nations with a fraction of Indonesia’s demographic might.

Gulardi Nurbintoro, a rare Indonesian to have clerked at the ICJ, posits in the Jakarta Post that the root of this issue lies in the nation’s legal education system. The intricacies of public international law, so distinct from domestic legal studies, necessitate a profound cultural shift towards a rigorous practice of reading, writing, and scholarly debate in English, at a level that can engage with global discourse.

With the Ministry of Foreign Affairs igniting the flames of change, Indonesia stands on the cusp of a significant international resurgence. To harness this potential, the nation must cultivate a new vanguard of legal scholars to enter the global dialogue. A burgeoning cadre of young academics is making strides in this direction, but this movement must escalate exponentially to realize the long-awaited dream of an Indonesian voice resounding once more in the chambers of international law.

Rafsi Albar is a law student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia with a focus on International Law. He is also a teaching assistant in Administrative Law, conducts various public interest legal research, and is also the Editor of Juris Gentium Law Review, the country's foremost student law journal.