Human Rights News

Indonesia: Military Must Control Conduct in Aceh

(New York, December 24, 2003) -- Indonesia must take public responsibility for abuses committed by its armed forces in Aceh, Human Rights Watch said today. An Indonesian former defense minister claimed that the soldiers’ actions were “beyond the control” of the country’s military.

" Ambassador Sudarsono should be commended for his candor in not denying the allegations in the Aceh report. But it is reprehensible to suggest that a military establishment cannot be expected to have control over their forces during armed conflict. This is the most basic responsibility of those in power. "
Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division
  

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On December 17 Human Rights Watch published “Aceh Under Martial Law: Inside the Secret War,” which documented summary executions, “disappearances,” arbitrary arrests, beatings and other abuses against civilians by the Indonesian military. The Indonesian government, which renewed military operations in the northwestern province in May, summarily rejected these claims without any investigation.  
 
But the same day the report was released, Juwono Sudarsono, Indonesia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and a former minister of defense, said in a BBC interview: (To read the transcript of the interview, please see: http://hrw.org/press/2003/12/bbc-interview121703.htm)  
 
“Well, once you have soldiers on the ground who are facing terrorist organizations like GAM [Free Aceh Movement], there is no way that any commander can have immediate operational control on the troops on the ground and that goes also for the GAM forces.” “You cannot expect legal accountability in a war situation…. The precise rules of humanitarian law just go out of the window once the shooting starts.”  
 
“Ambassador Sudarsono should be commended for his candor in not denying the allegations in the Aceh report,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “But it is reprehensible to suggest that a military establishment cannot be expected to have control over their forces during armed conflict. This is the most basic responsibility of those in power.”  
 
Human Rights Watch is concerned that the former defense minister’s comments indicate that some in the Indonesian government and military do not understand Indonesia’s legal obligations during armed conflict, and therefore are not exercising appropriate control over the country’s armed forces.  
 
“Perhaps most worrisome is that Sudarsono comes from the more reform-minded wing of the Indonesian government,” said Adams. “His comments may reflect the thinking of others in positions of power in Indonesia.”  
 
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, a state assumes responsibility for the actions of its armed forces. Armed forces must act to ensure the security of the civilian population and to limit harm to civilians and other non-combatants during military operations. States have a legal obligation to punish fairly and appropriately military personnel and others responsible for violations of the laws of war.  
 
“After their experience in East Timor, where many senior officers were indicted and convicted for failure to exercise proper control over their subordinates, Indonesia’s leaders should be under no illusions about their legal responsibilities in Aceh,” said Adams.  
 
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that a convicted human rights abuser in East Timor, Eurico Guterres, the former leader of the notorious Aitarak militia, recently announced that he now heads an organization with 18,000 members, 28 branch officers and the funds to fight separatists in Papua province. Guterres is free on bail while appealing a 10-year sentence in a Jakarta court for failure to exercise appropriate control over militia members who went on a murderous rampage after East Timor voted for independence in 1999. Guterres claims that his organization is registered with the Indonesian government.  
 
“If Indonesia wants to prove that it is serious about exercising control over its armed forces and militias, it should act to remove Guterres and his forces from Papua before they commit abuses like those in East Timor,” said Adams. “This would be a sign that the government understands its responsibilities.”  
 
Human Rights Watch urged the Indonesian government to promptly and seriously investigate reports of human rights abuses in Aceh and make public any findings. If it is unable to do so, it should permit the United Nations to send a fact-finding team to the province.  
 
Human Rights Watch welcomed reports that the Indonesian government is considering opening Aceh to outside observers. To address human rights concerns, however, such access must be complete and unfettered, except for legitimate security reasons. Indonesia claims that GAM is committing the same abuses as the Indonesian military, but without access, these claims cannot be investigated.  
 
“If there is nothing to hide, now is the time for Indonesia to let the world see what is happening in Aceh,” said Adams.