Human Rights Watch today called on Indonesia to halt the "registration" of East Timorese refugees until minimum safeguards are in place for them to choose freely whether they wish to return to East Timor or settle in Indonesia.

On October 13, Indonesian authorities sent a task force of government representatives and military and police personnel to West Timor, and the registration effort reportedly began on October 19.
Human Rights Watch also urged donors to make funding for resettlement and repatriation contingent on the development of an impartial and fully transparent registration procedure that meets standards of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Everyone wants a quick resolution of the refugee crisis, but unless the refugees can express their wishes without intimidation or pressure, the process will have no credibility," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch urged adoption of the following safeguards:

Development of a simple but neutral questionnaire to determine whether refugees seek to return to East Timor or resettle in Indonesia. Given that many refugees still lack reliable information on their options, care should be taken to ensure that the questionnaire is free of loaded questions and is both easy to administer and interpret. Development of the questionnaire should be a fully transparent process, with a draft document reviewed by impartial parties, including international humanitarian agencies, local church and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the U.N.

Public announcement of the proposed methodology that will be followed in interviewing the refugees, including how, when, where, and by whom interviewing will be conducted; whether all adults or only heads of household will be questioned; what safeguards for confidentiality will be in place; and who will supervise the process.

Prohibition on the involvement of political organizations such as UNTAS ("Union of Timorese Warriors") whose agenda could influence the outcome of the survey.

Public provision of full and accurate information to the refugees about what they can expect as a result of their choice. Officials in U.N.-administered East Timor (UNTAET) should prepare a fact sheet explaining what will happen to returning refugees from the moment they cross back: how long they might be expected to stay in transit camps; what assistance they will be given for reintegration; what channels will be available to them if problems arise; and what political rights they will have. The factsheet should also explain how justice and reconciliation procedures will work for those suspected of participation in militia violence. The Indonesian government should prepare a similar sheet about resettlement, including when it would take place, how resettlement sites would be determined, and what economic assistance would be available.
The Indonesian government clearly wants to get the registration process completed as quickly as possible, both to ease international pressure to resolve the refugee situation and to remove a source of social unrest in West Timor. International pressure on Jakarta has been intense since three U.N. aid workers were killed by a militia-led mob on September 6, 2000. On November 13, the U.N. Security Council is scheduled to send a delegation to observe Indonesia's progress to date in fulfilling the terms of Resolution 1319, a sharply worded statement issued by the Security Council in September, demanding that Indonesia act immediately to address the refugee crisis. The delegation should look at the registration process as a matter of urgency.

In part in response to Security Council pressure, in part to veiled warnings from donors that assistance to Indonesia could be contingent on improvements in West Timor, the Indonesian government has done more with respect to West Timor in the last month than it did during the entire previous year. Nevertheless, there is still concern that its actions to date have been superficial.

It was in this context that the Indonesian government sent a task force to West Timor to work out modalities for registration, resettlement, and repatriation.

In recent weeks, Indonesian military and police have conducted "sweepings" in major camps and have confiscated a few dozen firearms and hundreds of homemade guns. Even militia leaders have acknowledged that they were retaining weapons, however, and there has been no
indication of any arrests on weapons charges or any serious effort to investigate the source of a seemingly endless supply of ammunition to militias who have made incursions into east Timor.

The Indonesian government also continues to turn a blind eye to the fact that UNTAS, an organization formed by militia leaders in January 2000, can in no way legitimately claim to speak for all East Timorese refugees and is in effect the political front of the militias. Indonesian officials have repeatedly treated UNTAS as the official representative of East Timorese in West
Timor, when in fact its members are believed to represent a minority of the refugee population and have prevented people from exercising their right to return to East Timor.

In response to calls that those responsible for the killings of the U.N. humanitarian workers be brought to justice, the Indonesian government did arrest six individuals, but calls by the Indonesian Commission on Human Rights for an independent fact-finding team went unheeded. All investigations to date have been conducted by a joint Indonesian army and
police team whose objectivity is open to question.

In recent days, the possibility has emerged that a breakaway group of four militia leaders might try to return to East Timor with a large number of their followers. The four wrote to the U.N. Security Council on October 14, 2000, reporting "[a]cts of terror and intimidation, along with efforts to assassinate former Militia commanders who TNI/POLRI [the Indonesian army and police] suspect of knowing secrets concerning various cases of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in East Timor." The four militia leaders, who also offered in the letter to reveal full information about the destruction of East Timor in 1999, have been denounced by Indonesian and East Timorese pro-integration officials alike as "opportunists" trying to escape punishment for their crimes.

Human Rights Watch noted that the motives of the breakaway militia group remain unclear and emphasized that if a large group of refugees were to return to East Timor prior to the establishment of a neutral registration process, they should be given a chance in East Timor to express their wishes free of the influence of the militias who bring them back.