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(New York) - Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri should allow international humanitarian agencies full and unfettered access to Aceh, where recent military offensives may have sparked a humanitarian crisis, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

The Human Rights Watch briefing paper, Aceh Under Martial Law: Unnecessary and Dangerous Restrictions on International Humanitarian Access, documents recent bureaucratic restrictions that bar international humanitarian agencies from providing direct aid to the province.

Megawati will speak before the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2003, about anti-terrorism efforts underway in Indonesia. Human Rights Watch urged the Secretary General of the United Nations, as well as member states, to remind Megawati of her obligations to allow humanitarian relief to reach civilians in Aceh.

"The international community should not allow the Indonesian government to use legitimate concerns about terrorism in Indonesia to deflect attention from equally legitimate concerns about the current crisis in Aceh," said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. "Access to Aceh should be at the top of the international agenda with President Megawati."

The briefing paper warned that without outside assistance, local authorities may not be able to distribute food and supplies or protect vulnerable groups, such as children separated from their parents, victims of trauma, the elderly, or pregnant women.

Indonesia also may be unable to provide water and sanitation facilities in camps for civilians forced to flee their homes due to the fighting.

In the past, Indonesia has relied heavily on international humanitarian agencies and the United Nations to provide support during humanitarian crises, but it has severely restricted those groups from Aceh since the government launched a major military campaign against the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) on May 19.

"The Indonesian government should not be blocking humanitarian assistance at this critical juncture," said Adams. "The people of Aceh could be facing a real disaster behind closed doors. It is time for Indonesia to open up the province to outside observers and to let humanitarian agencies do their work."

The ongoing offensive in Aceh is Indonesia's largest military campaign since it invaded East Timor in 1975. The operation in Aceh involves an estimated 30,000 troops. Opposing them are an estimated five thousand armed members of GAM.

Recent fighting between the Indonesian military and GAM, including attacks on food convoys, has cut supplies of food and water, and disrupted electricity, communications and health care services.

Early warning signs of a humanitarian crisis have come by way of Indonesian media sources and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), who have noted malnutrition and a shortage of water and sanitation facilities among thousands of civilians who have fled their homes during the fighting.

Human Rights Watch also urged the United Nations to continue to press Indonesia for an independent assessment of the needs of Aceh's civilians and to ensure they are provided with necessary assistance.

In the briefing paper, Human Rights Watch urged the government of Indonesia to:

  • Provide immediate and unimpeded access throughout Aceh for all impartial humanitarian agencies to distribute and monitor aid.
  • Facilitate, rather then impede, the movement of humanitarian workers in the province.
  • End the requirement that humanitarian aid be routed through the Indonesian authorities, and permit impartial humanitarian agencies to deliver aid directly to populations in need.
  • Allow access to U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations that can assist in the protection of civilians, particularly displaced persons.
  • Act to prevent attacks on humanitarian agencies and their workers, and take appropriate action against those implicated in such attacks.

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