Human Rights Watch called on both the government of Indonesia and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and non-combatants during any military operation. Thousands of civilians have been internally displaced since the Indonesian government began its most recent build-up.
"Given Indonesia's past abuses in Aceh, there is tremendous potential for civilians to be targeted in the violence," said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. "Past military approaches to ending the conflict in Aceh have failed to bring about peace and stability, while resulting in large-scale human rights violations."
Last minute peace talks in Tokyo on May 17 and 18 between the government of Indonesia and GAM failed to reach a peaceful solution to the Aceh conflict or to maintain a tenuous cease-fire agreement. President Megawati Sukarnoputri then announced Presidential Decree 28/2003 authorizing a state of military emergency in Aceh. Under the decree, the president has authorized military operations for a period of six months, which can be extended. This brings an effective end to the internationally negotiated "Cessation of Hostilities Agreement," which provided the framework for a fragile cease-fire in the province since December 9, 2002. The cease-fire broke down with the resumption of open hostilities in the last two weeks.
Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern about recent comments by senior Indonesian military officers about plans to "crush" the separatist movement.
"These statements are particularly worrisome given the appalling track record of the Indonesian military in Aceh," said Adams.
From May 1990 to August 1998, Aceh was declared a Military Operations Area, during which the Indonesian armed forces carried out intensive counterinsurgency campaigns against the GAM. In this period, thousands of civilians were extra-judicially killed, disappeared or tortured.
Human Rights Watch said that military operations in Aceh will be closely monitored by the international community.
"The Presidential Decree must not green-light attacks by the Indonesian military on civilians or supporters of GAM," said Adams. "As Indonesia's generals have learned from their humiliating experience in East Timor, the international community's tolerance for impunity is shrinking. The world will be closely monitoring this conflict to see whether either the Indonesian military or GAM's forces commit abuses."
Human Rights Watch noted with concern that the Indonesian military had already started intensive bombing and that thousands of extra Indonesian troops have arrived in the province over the past week. Due to the deteriorating security situation in Aceh, the mostly Thai and Philippine Cessation of Hostilities Agreement monitors were recently withdrawn from Aceh.
"In the past week, there has already been an increase in fighting and serious internal displacement of the civilian population," said Adams. "With the international monitors gone, there is a real risk soldiers will think they can get away with murder."
Human Rights Watch cautioned that if crimes are committed, perpetrators will be brought to justice. To reduce the risk of violations, Human Rights Watch urged the Indonesian government to allow independent monitors, diplomats and foreign journalists immediate access to Aceh. All are currently barred from entry. Since hostilities intensified in the last two weeks, non-governmental and human rights workers have seen stepped-up levels of abuse, from arrests to "disappearances" to summary executions.
Most recently, two human rights defenders from PB-HAM East Aceh (Pos Bantuan Hukum dan HAM, Human Rights and Legal Aid Post) were targeted; one was kidnapped from a bus, the other disappeared and was found murdered.