Washington Is Ignoring Human Rights Abuses: The Indonesia Case

When U.S. and Indonesian officials met in Jakarta in late April to discuss resumption of military cooperation, it should have caused alarm bells to ring all over Washington.

These were the first formal defense talks between the two sides since Washington severed military ties with Jakarta three years ago. The U.S. decision came in response to the violence perpetrated by the Indonesian military and its militias in East Timor after the pro-independence vote there. Congress set seven conditions Indonesia would have to meet to before military aid could be resumed, including the safe return of East Timorese refugees and the prosecution of those responsible for atrocities in East Timor and Indonesia.

But none of these congressionally mandated conditions has been met, and human rights abuses with military impunity persist. The State Department’s 2001 Human Rights report says Indonesia’s human rights record “remained poor…. Security forces were responsible for numerous instances of, at times indiscriminate, shooting of civilians, torture, rape, beatings, and other abuse.”

Since September 11th, the Bush administration has been quietly ignoring Indonesia’s grim human rights record and the congressional mandate, working around limitations on military aid and training, adamant that they stand in the way of the war on terrorism. Already, the administration has lifted the embargo on commercial sales of non-lethal defense articles and increased bilateral contacts between the militaries. Congress has done its part by agreeing to reinstate classroom military training, known as E-IMET for fiscal year 2002.

Clearly, the White House is eager to resume at least limited military cooperation. Just a few days ago President Bush sent Congress his request for $8 million to train an Indonesian counter-terrorism unit and $8 million more to train a domestic peacekeeping unit.

Admiral Dennis Blair, U.S. commander-in-chief in the Pacific, has been consistently outspoken on the need to resume military ties, telling Congress recently that “current restrictions on our interaction with the Indonesian armed forces limit our effectiveness” in the war on terrorism.

At Admiral Blair’s request, Senators Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) quietly inserted President Bush’s proposal for an Indonesian counter-terrorism unit as a last-minute addition to the FY02 Defense Department Appropriations Act. The $17.9 million “Regional Defense Counter-terrorism Fellowship Program” doesn’t stipulate any restriction on which countries can participate–it’s a loophole designed to undermine hard-won restrictions on military training for Indonesia.

After the talks between Indonesia’s top generals and the U.S. assistant deputy defense secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs, Peter Brookes, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta was quick to emphasize that the talks “are not, and should not be seen as, a resumption of full military relations.”

Admiral Widodo Adisutjipto, head of the Indonesia armed forces, took another view, expressing his hope that the talks signaled that “military cooperation between Indonesia and the United States will finally reawaken.” Specifically, Indonesia hopes for commitments of new military training, light weapons, and spare parts for their grounded fleet of 12 U.S. F-16 fighter planes.

But this quiet “reawakening” of military ties with Indonesia needs hard-eyed scrutiny in Washington.

For openers, U.S. efforts to restore military ties with Indonesia have yet to produce either human rights reforms or concrete cooperation with the “war on terrorism.” Thus far, the Indonesian government has virtually ignored U.S. requests for information on terrorist suspects and their finances, and Indonesian government and military officials continue to back domestic-focused militant jihad groups that Washington suspects are linked to al Qaeda. Given this intransigence, it’s unlikely that further opening of military cooperation will result in significant changes.

The Pentagon may argue that Indonesia needs U.S. weapons and training to be an effective anti-terrorism partner, but many steps could be taken without renewing military aid. Jakarta’s first contribution needs to be significant progress on the human rights conditions mandated by Congress, coupled with serious advances in nonmilitary aspects of the war on terrorism.

A purely military partnership with Indonesia with no strings attached will be a partnership with the wrong people at best, and at worst will result in a further erosion of human rights and the rule of law.