Obama Administration Lifts Ban Despite Military’s Lack of Reform, Accountability
July 22, 2010
The Obama administration has just failed a key test. This is not the way to encourage reform with a military that has yet to demonstrate a genuine commitment to accountability for serious human rights abuses. This decision rewards Kopassus for its intransigence over abuses and effectively betrays those in Indonesia who have fought for decades for accountability and justice.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - The Obama administration's decision to lift a more than decade-long ban on US military assistance to Indonesia's abusive special forces seriously undermines its commitment to promoting respect for human rights in Indonesia and weakens US standards for military cooperation globally, Human Rights Watch said today. The US secretary of defense, Robert Gates, announced a limited program of engagement with the elite force, Komando Pasukan Khusus (Kopassus), while in Jakarta today.

Kopassus has been responsible for numerous serious human rights abuses - including killings, enforced disappearances, and torture - since the 1990s. The Indonesian government's failure to remove Kopassus soldiers convicted of serious abuses from the military, and its recent appointment of officers credibly linked with abuses to leadership posts within Kopassus and the Defense Ministry made repealing the ban particularly inappropriate, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Obama administration has just failed a key test. This is not the way to encourage reform with a military that has yet to demonstrate a genuine commitment to accountability for serious human rights abuses," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "This decision rewards Kopassus for its intransigence over abuses and effectively betrays those in Indonesia who have fought for decades for accountability and justice."

Defense Secretary Gates said that initial reengagement with Kopassus "will take place within the limits of US law and do[es] not signal any lessening of the importance we place on human rights and accountability."

The administration has apparently detailed to the Indonesian government various criteria to resume interactions with Kopassus: that personnel convicted of human rights violations be removed from the special forces; that the military and Kopassus pledge to cooperate with future civilian or military investigations and prosecutions of human rights abuses; that anyone convicted of human rights abuses in the future be prohibited from serving in the military; and that personnel credibly alleged to have committed human rights abuses in the future be suspended pending an investigation. However, Human Rights Watch noted that those criteria are not currently being met, and in any case, are far from adequate to address the problem.

"These standards disregard the difficulty of prosecuting Indonesian military personnel for even the most serious abuses," said Richardson.

The Indonesian military justice system presently has exclusive jurisdiction over military personnel except in cases in which they are accused of genocide or crimes against humanity, or are alleged to have committed crimes with civilian accomplices. Human Rights Watch pointed to the structural weaknesses of the military court system, which has repeatedly failed to investigate and adequately prosecute alleged abusers in the past, in an April 2010 letter to a key Indonesian lawmaker urging him to support a bill that would transfer jurisdiction over such cases to civilian courts.

"The Indonesian justice system rarely vigorously investigates or prosecutes anyone from the military, so forces like Kopassus will likely still be able to commit abuses with impunity and still meet the Obama administration's standards," said Richardson. "It's hard to see the administration's decision as anything other than a victory for abusive militaries worldwide."

The US government cut off all aid to the Indonesian military in 1999 as a result of widespread human rights violations in East Timor and has refused to resume aid to Kopassus in particular because of ongoing concerns about its record and lack of accountability. Human Rights Watch has acknowledged important human rights improvements in Indonesia since the end of the authoritarian Suharto regime, but has also expressed ongoing concerns that security sector reform in Indonesia has stalled in critical areas, such as accountability for human rights violations.

Kopassus members have been implicated in serious human rights abuses, including abducting and "disappearing" student activists in 1997-98, launching a scorched-earth campaign and forming deadly militia forces in East Timor in 1999, and abducting and killing Papuan activist and traditional leader Theys H. Eluay in 2001. In 2003, Human Rights Watch documented allegations that Kopassus soldiers engaged in torture during military operations in Aceh. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report entitled "What Did I Do Wrong?" found that Kopassus soldiers were engaging in a pattern of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of civilians in Merauke, Papua.

In none of these cases did the Indonesian military take sufficient steps to ensure that perpetrators were held accountable. A series of ad hoc trials of soldiers implicated in crimes against humanity in East Timor in 1999 ultimately failed to convict a single defendant. A number of the soldiers convicted by a military court for the student disappearances remained in the Indonesian military as of 2007, and two remained in Kopassus until March 2010. One of the seven Kopassus members convicted of mistreatment and battery leading to Eluay's death, Colonel Tri Hartomo, was later promoted to a senior position in the Kopassus leadership and as of March 2010 serves elsewhere in the Indonesian military. Kopassus has denied the allegations in "What did I do Wrong," and to Human Rights Watch's knowledge has not sanctioned any of the soldiers implicated in the misconduct documented in the report.

In April 2010, Col. Nugroho Widyo Utomo, who has been credibly accused of involvement in serious human rights abuses in East Timor as the commander of the Combined Intelligence Task Force in 1998, was appointed to the position of deputy commander of Kopassus. Widyo Utomo is alleged to have had an active role in establishing the militias that the Indonesian military used to intimidate, harass, and kill an estimated 1,400 East Timorese suspected of supporting independence from Indonesia in the run-up to a 1999 referendum - the events that prompted the United States to impose its ban on all aid to the Indonesian military. Widyo Utomo's appointment follows the January 2010 appointment of Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, who was implicated in the 1997-98 student disappearances, abuses in East Timor in 1999, and the Santa Cruz Massacre in East Timor in 1991, to the position of deputy defense minister by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"The Indonesian government's recent appointment of two individuals implicated in the very abuses that led the US to cut off aid in the first place to senior positions within Kopassus and the Defense Ministry shows that it is not serious about reform, and the Obama administration ignores this at its peril," said Richardson.

The debate over resuming US assistance to Kopassus began in early 2010, prior to President Barack Obama's then-planned trip to Indonesia. In response to initial demands made by the administration, the Indonesian government shifted at least three officers previously convicted of human rights abuses from Kopassus to other positions within the Indonesian military and stated, through an interview by the minister of defense to an English-language newspaper, that soldiers found to have committed genocide or crimes against humanity would be suspended and questioned, and if found responsible by the military, would be brought before a civilian court. The US government appears to have considered these steps satisfactory to ensure future accountability, even though there are no judicial mechanisms sufficiently robust and independent to reliably deliver on the necessary kind of investigations or prosecutions envisioned under the plan.

Human Rights Watch called on the Obama administration to insist that more stringent and systemic standards be met prior to the resumption of training for security forces.

Those include:

  • encouraging passage of legislation in the Indonesian parliament that would transfer the prosecution of abuses committed by members of the military against civilians to civilian courts;
  • that the military should permanently discharge personnel convicted of serious human rights abuses;
  • that the government adopt transparent measures to ensure credible, impartial, and timely investigations into all future allegations of human rights abuse; and that
  • President Yudhoyono should establish an ad hoc tribunal to investigate the enforced disappearance of student activists in 1997-98, as Indonesia's House of Representatives recommended in September 2009.

"The Obama administration's decision to start training Kopassus now risks undermining the limited progress towards professionalism that the Indonesian military has made thus far," said Richardson. "The US is rewarding Indonesia for blocking justice, which sends the worst possible message for the future."

Background:

Limitations mandated by the US Congress on providing training to foreign military forces under what is known as the "Leahy Law" bar the US from providing training, in the absence of corrective steps, to military units that are credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights.

In a February 4, 2010 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Human Rights Watch outlined three key steps Indonesia should take to address accountability for past and future abuses by Kopassus prior to resuming engagement with the force. First, the military should permanently discharge personnel convicted of serious human rights abuses. Second, it should adopt transparent measures to ensure credible, impartial, and timely investigations into all future allegations of human rights abuse. Third, President Yudhoyono should establish an ad hoc tribunal to investigate the enforced disappearance of student activists in 1997-98, as Indonesia's House of Representatives recommended in September 2009.

In March 2010 four prominent Indonesian nongovernmental organizations called on the US to refrain from reengaging with Kopassus until it investigated past human rights abuses involving Kopassus, including by establishing the ad hoc court on the student disappearances, and took action to ensure that similar abuses would not occur. In a May 2010 letter, 13 members of the US Congress, including Senators John Kerry and Patrick Leahy, wrote to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Gates expressing serious concerns regarding their intention to resume training Kopassus and calling for prior consultation with Congress before such engagement began to ensure it met the requirements of US law. The letter also called for US government officials to encourage Indonesian legislators to enact a bill that would give the civilian courts the power to hear cases involving human rights offenses committed by members of the military and to condition US reengagement on the passage of such legislation.

Human Rights Watch has regularly raised concerns regarding the US government's ability to effectively vet and monitor elements of Kopassus, and particularly its counter-terrorism unit, in a March, 2010 letter to Secretaries Clinton and Gates. Human Rights Watch also urged the Obama administration to refrain from providing unconditional assistance to Kopassus until Indonesia has adopted a number of structural reforms to address Kopassus' lack of accountability, including making genuine progress in eliminating all forms of military business; launching renewed investigations into other serious human rights abuses in which security services have been implicated, such as the 2004 murder of Indonesian human rights activist Munir bin Said Thalib; and enacting legislation allowing civilian courts to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by military personnel against civilians.

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