When the Indonesian government and the armed separatists of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) signed their peace agreement this week, they demonstrated that even the darkest cloud may have a silver lining after all. Last December's devastating tsunami killed or injured hundreds of thousands of Acehnese, but the response brought an enormous amount of international goodwill and assistance for the reconstruction and development of the province, and restarted previously unsuccessful peace talks.
As a result, the Acehnese could finally get a real chance to develop and prosper in a safe and peaceful environment. Failure, however, could plunge an already devastated province into renewed conflict with little likelihood of overcoming the twin disasters of deluge and war.
Of course we have been here before. In December 2002, after thirty years of fighting marked by human rights abuses, thousands of deaths, and total impunity for those responsible for war crimes, the Indonesian government and GAM signed a cessation of hostilities agreement. But after just a few months, the agreement fell apart and full scale hostilities began anew in the province.
For today's agreement to be sustainable, success rests on two elements: First, both sides must abide by the agreement in good faith. Second, there must be focused attention to human rights. Both elements require an active commitment from both sides and close, objective, monitoring with strong international involvement.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made securing peace for Aceh a priority, but the Indonesian military's enthusiasm and support for the peace agreement has been less clear. The military has major financial interests in the province that will be curtailed by this agreement, as well as a longstanding antipathy to its autonomy. The history of Indonesia's armed forces in East Timor, West Papua, and the Maluku islands, together with a general lack of reform of the military, mean that their actions during the next few months must be scrutinized.
Pointing out the military's poor record in Aceh is not to ignore GAM's own sad history of abusive behavior. The human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides to the conflict have fueled the conflict in Aceh. The promotion and protection of human rights were conspicuously absent from the 2002 cease-fire agreement; this time around, such protection will be key to making this new peace deal work and ending the cycle of violence.
To their credit the Indonesian government is allowing monitors from the EU and ASEAN member states to monitor the implementation of the agreement on the ground. However, for their efforts to be as effective as possible the following areas will be critical:
- Full access to the entire province. Most of Aceh has remained closed to the international community since May 2003, when military operations recommenced in earnest. Even after the tsunami, access was largely limited to the coastal areas devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.. Monitors should be allowed full access, subject only to genuine security restrictions. This access should also extend to humanitarian workers and members of the domestic and foreign media.
- A strong human rights mandate. The international monitors' mandate should include public reporting and timely interventions, private and public, to address human rights and international humanitarian law violations by all sides. They should collect and preserve evidence of human rights violations which can be used in possible subsequent legal proceedings. Human rights experts should be part of the monitoring mission, with a significant presence of women and experts with knowledge of abuses related to sexual violence.
- Highlight vulnerable groups. The international community should take steps to protect vulnerable groups, particularly women, children, and those displaced by the conflict. Both sides have reportedly engage din rape and other violence against women. Indonesian security forces have arrested or arbitrarily detained women in Aceh as punishment if their male relatives have fled the province. Security forces also regularly target young men, as suspected GAM sympathizers, with beatings, forced disappearances and arbitrary detention.
- Back civil society. For peace to really take hold in Aceh it will be essential to strengthen local civil society. Under the conflict human rights defenders and members of non governmental organizations have been killed, abducted, and subjected to verbal and physical intimidation by both sides. Both the Indonesian Government and GAM should offer explicit guarantees to ensure protection for human rights monitors, civil society members, and humanitarian workers.
- Accountability for past and ongoing violations. Impunity for past and ongoing human rights violations has created an environment of mistrust between the Acehnese and the Indonesian government. The new peace deal contains a provision for the establishment of an ad hoc court in Aceh to hear cases of human rights violations in the province. While a welcome first step towards accountability it is critical to maintain this court's independence and there should be no general amnesty for perpetrators of human rights crimes. International monitors should publicly report on violations by both sides, and press them to take measures to hold perpetrators within their own ranks accountable.
- Outreach and regular reporting. The people of Aceh will only have confidence in the peace agreement if they feel part of it. The Government of Indonesia, GAM and the international monitors should disseminate information about the peace agreement in both Acehnese and Indonesian. The mandate of the EU and ASEAN monitoring missions, their terms of engagement and components should also be public.
There is much at stake with this new agreement. The people of Aceh have suffered through years of conflict and the devastating ferocity of last December's tsunami was an added blow. This may be Indonesia's last chance to reach a viable long-term solution to the conflict, and tap into this international support.