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Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee letter to Indonesian Minister of Research and Technology B.J. Habibie, February 13, 1998.

February 13, 1998

Dr. B. J. Habibie
State Minister of Research and Technology
Republic of Indonesia

Dear Minister Habibie:

We are writing this open letter on behalf of the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee to express our grave concern over the formal warning you recently sent to researchers at Indonesia’s prestigious National Institute of Sciences (Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia or LIPI).

On January 20, 1998, a group of nineteen LIPI researchers held a press conference and publicly issued a “Letter of Concern” calling for President Soeharto to step down, declaring that the Soeharto government no longer embodied the aspirations of the Indonesian people. On February 10, 1998, you issued a “Warning Letter” formally reprimanding the researchers for their statement and sharply warning them not to engage in such activity in the future.

Your warning letter sets forth four objections to the researchers’ public expression of their views: 1) researchers should channel any ideas and recommendations relating to public problems via LIPI, their employer; 2) public expression of views directly via the mass media might cause unrest at a time when the country is facing a monetary crisis; 3) such expression of views constitutes a form of practical political activity inconsistent with the function of the experts and researchers who work at LIPI; and 4) it is not appropriate to use the LIPI building, a government facility, to put forward private views.

We agree that the researchers, as academic professionals and government employees, have a duty when expressing personal views to make clear to the public that they are speaking in their personal capacity and not on behalf of the institution. In the present case, however, there appears to have been no confusion. As emphasized by Soefjan Tsauri, director of LIPI, no action is being taken against the researchers by LIPI officials because the researchers made the statement in their capacity as private citizens.

We object in the strongest possible terms, however, to your assertion that, as scientists and civil servants, the researchers are in effect professionally obligated to refrain from expressing their personal views in any public forum, and to the clear implication in the letter that reprisals will be taken against them if they do so again in the future. We also note that although the warning is addressed to the LIPI researchers, the logic of your assertions appear to apply as well to the thousands of faculty members at public universities throughout Indonesia who, like the LIPI researchers, are civil servants dependent on government salaries.

The suggestion that independent expression of political views is inconsistent with the function of LIPI researchers as scientists and civil servants is, to us, perverse. It is contrary to the respect for individual autonomy and freedom of expression commanded by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and contrary to the spirit of academic freedom.

Science and expression of social conscience are not incompatible. Some of the most creative and productive scientists of the twentieth century are universally revered today not solely for their scientific insights but also because they dared to speak out publicly against what they saw as tyranny, abuse of power, and injustice, and because they actively participated in social movements calling for reform. Albert Einstein and Andrei Sakharov are two prominent examples.

Because we believe that retribution against the LIPI researchers for expression of their political views would violate the international norms given expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and strike a blow to academic freedom, we respectfully urge that you withdraw your formal warning or modify the warning to comport with international standards. At a minimum, any modification should make clear that although researchers should take care when expressing personal views not to create the impression that they are speaking on behalf of the institution at which they are employed, the government stands fully behind their rights as citizens to freely express their views and to freely associate with those who share such views.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We welcome a reply.

Sincerely yours,


Jonathan F. Fanton Co-Chair, Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee
President, New School for Social Research


Joseph H. Saunders
Human Rights Watch academic freedom program

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