Human Rights News

Tsunami Relief Efforts in Aceh: Letter to President Yudhoyono

January 6, 2005  
 
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono  
Republic of Indonesia  
 
Dear President Yudhoyono:  
 
We write to express Human Rights Watch’s deepest sympathies to the victims of the tsunami in Aceh and North Sumatra. This is indeed a tragic time for Indonesia.  

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While the crisis unfolds it is clear that the survivors of the tsunami need immediate humanitarian assistance and support. We applaud your leadership in swiftly convening a donors’ meeting in Jakarta to assess and address the needs in Aceh. We hope that the success of the meeting will be translated into effective relief for the victims of the tsunami, without delay, and that donor pledges are fully implemented.  
 
In this regard we would like to raise a few concerns about the ongoing relief effort in Aceh, and seek clarification on some key issues.  
 
We are concerned about ongoing restrictions on access to humanitarian organizations, the media and other independent observers. A series of government regulations since the resumption of military operations in May 2003 has severely restricted access to Aceh for international humanitarian organizations, members of the foreign media, and independent monitors. Human Rights Watch urges you to clarify the status of Presidential decree No. 43/2003, which places unnecessary restrictions on access for the United Nations, international agencies, nongovernmental organizations, journalists and foreigners in Aceh. If it remains in effect, we urge you to revoke it. Now more than ever, unhindered access to the province is critical. Lengthy and time-consuming bureaucratic processes to gain entry––or to remain in Aceh after this initial, chaotic period––should be abolished. Such practices do not reflect well on an emerging democracy committed to human rights.  
 
The fullest possible information will be a key and necessary part of the recovery process. Previous policies of isolating Aceh may have hindered the ability to effectively assess the extent of the damage wrought by the tsunami or react more quickly. Decades of conflict have left the province with little infrastructure or functioning government. Access should thus be limited only by reasonable concerns for the physical security of those entering, and not by a desire to hide bad news from the public. The Indonesian public should be able to know as much as possible about any ongoing military operations in Aceh.  
 
Prior to the tsunami, Aceh was under a state of civil emergency due to ongoing fighting between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Indonesia’s armed forces. Is the civil emergency still in force? There have been conflicting statements by military officials about whether the urgency of addressing the tsunami’s victims means that a ceasefire is now in place. Can you clarify this? If the civil emergency regulation remains in force we would urge you at this time to remove those provisions which unnecessarily restrict freedom of expression, assembly, movement and information.  
 
Many in the Indonesian military have demonstrated dedication and compassion in addressing the immediate needs of survivors of the tsunami. The army has been heavily involved in the thankless task of the collection and burial of bodies. Human Rights Watch appreciates the commitment of so many in the Indonesian armed forces to provide protection and assistance at this critical time.  
 
However, Human Rights Watch encourages you to carefully consider the role of the Indonesian military in the relief operation. While in this early stage the military has had an indispensable logistical role, it is important for duties to be handed over to the appropriate government agencies and experienced, professional aid organizations––both national and international––as soon as possible. They should be allowed to deliver aid directly to populations in need, without military escort or presence, except where their physical security necessitates a military presence. These organizations know well how to operate in areas of conflict and should be allowed to get on with their crucial tasks. The military should focus its disaster-related assistance on tasks, such as road building, that are outside the competence of aid organizations.  
 
There have been some reports that aid agencies have been pressured or even required to turn over aid to the military for delivery. We urge you to publicly issue instructions that any such practices be halted. There is no justification for agencies to be required to deliver aid via the military. In addition, concerns have been raised by credible non-governmental organizations that some in the army have not distributed humanitarian assistance in an impartial manner, denying help to perceived GAM supporters. Such reports, if true, are likely to undermine local goodwill for government humanitarian assistance efforts.  
 
Observers in Aceh have already reported fighting and fatalities in East Aceh as the armed conflict with GAM appears to continue in spite of this unprecedented crisis in Aceh. You have made it clear in the past that, unlike the previous Indonesian administration, you do not believe a military solution can be found to this long and devastating conflict, in which serious human rights abuses have been committed by both sides. You also said after your election that addressing the conflict in Aceh was your highest domestic priority. As Jan Egeland of OCHA and aid agencies are already pointing out, an ongoing war will make it difficult, if not impossible, for genuine reconstruction and development to take place. We believe that the priority now must be mobilizing all government institutions to provide relief and reconstruction. We urge you and GAM in accordance with your obligations under international humanitarian law to take all steps to ensure the free flow of assistance to all affected areas.  
 
Human Rights Watch welcomes the House of Representatives leader’s recent decision to form a team of twenty legislators with the task of supervising the distribution of humanitarian aid to tsunami-hit areas in Aceh and North Sumatra in order to help prevent misuse of funds. Aceh has a history of corruption in the distribution of aid. Transparent and accountable civilian oversight will be crucial in ensuring that the billions of dollars pledged by international donors will go to those who need it. Failure to ensure the proper use of aid will erode the international goodwill for the Indonesian Government and the challenging reconstruction effort ahead.  
 
Thank you for your consideration. Again, please accept our most solemn condolences for the tragedy that Aceh has suffered and our best wishes for the speediest recovery possible.  
 
Yours faithfully,  
 
Brad Adams  
Executive Director  
Asia Division