For Immediate Release
Indonesia: US Should Justify Training Counterterrorism Unit
Resuming Ties Should Require Resolving Concerns About Special Forces’ Abuses
WASHINGTON - The US government should train members of Indonesia's elite special
forces only if Indonesia takes sufficient steps toward accountability
and reform to deter future abuses, Human Rights Watch said in two
letters released today.
Ahead of President Barack Obama's anticipated late-March trip to
Indonesia, US officials have suggested that the Defense Department is
seeking to provide training to members of Indonesia's special forces
(Komando Pasukan Khusus, or Kopassus), an abusive force that includes
individuals implicated in serious human rights violations. US training
for Kopassus has been restricted for over a decade because of concerns
about its record and lack of accountability for abuses.
"US training for Kopassus could someday improve its human rights
performance, but only if those trained have a real incentive to stop
committing abuses," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at
Human Rights Watch. "Unfortunately, those Kopassus soldiers convicted
for human rights abuse rarely find it an impediment to advancing
through the ranks."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told members of Congress on
February 4, 2010, that the State Department is trying to "resume
support for vital security functions," in Indonesia and "move into a
new era of cooperation," specifically citing Indonesia's performance on
The first letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates,
sent February 4, identified specific human rights concerns related to
the Indonesian military and recommended measures the US could take to
encourage development of a professional, accountable, and
rights-respecting military in Indonesia.
The second letter, sent today to Secretaries Clinton and Gates,
raised questions about a plan to approve US training for young members
of Kopassus' counterterror force, known as Unit 81, on the grounds that
they would presumably not have been involved in the unit's past
Human Rights Watch raised a number of concerns about Unit 81, which
has existed since 1982, though under different unit designations. The
unit's movements have long been shrouded in secrecy, but available
information includes credible allegations that its members participated
in serious human rights abuses, including the enforced disappearances
of student activists in 1997 and 1998. Teams of Unit 81 soldiers are
reported to have deployed to conflict zones, including East Timor and
Aceh, during which Kopassus was implicated in serious abuses.
Limitations mandated by the US Congress on providing training to
foreign military forces under what is known as the "Leahy law" bar the
US from providing training, in the absence of corrective steps, to
military units that are credibly alleged to have committed gross
violations of human rights. State Department policy currently requires
that the human rights records of all individual nominees to receive US
military training be vetted before they can be approved for
"The main thing that distinguishes Unit 81 from the rest of Kopassus
is the secrecy with which it operates and that its name has changed -
hardly the kind of reforms the US should be encouraging," said
Richardson. "The US government should explain why Unit 81 should be
treated any differently from the rest of Kopassus."
In the February 4 letter, Human Rights Watch detailed human rights
abuses committed by Kopassus. Although 11 military personnel,
including several members of Kopassus, were convicted for abducting the
student activists in 1997 and 1998, as of 2007 the majority remained in
the military and had received promotions. A Kopassus officer, Lt. Col.
Tri Hartomo, was convicted of abuse leading to the 2001 death of a
Papuan activist, Theys Eluay, but today Hartomo serves in a senior
command position in Kopassus.
And although Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin was implicated in a
massacre in East Timor while serving in Kopassus and other abuses for
which he has never been subjected to a credible investigation, he was
appointed deputy defense minister in January.
Kopassus soldiers continue to be implicated in abuses such as the
arbitrary arrest and detention and mistreatment of youths in Papua, as
documented in a June 2009 report by Human Rights Watch, "What Did I Do Wrong?"
Human Rights Watch outlined three key steps Indonesia should take to
address accountability for past and future abuses by Kopassus. The
military should permanently discharge personnel convicted of serious
human rights abuses. It should adopt transparent measures to ensure
credible, impartial and timely investigations into all future
allegations of human rights abuse. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
should establish an ad hoc tribunal to investigate the
enforced disappearance of student activists in 1997-98, as Indonesia's
House of Representatives recommended in September 2009.
Once Indonesia has taken these steps, the US could provide limited,
non-combat training to individual Kopassus members who have been
carefully and effectively vetted, Human Rights Watch said. However,
unconditional assistance to Kopassus, including combat training and
equipment, should be provided only once Indonesia has adopted a number
of structural reforms to address Kopassus' lack of accountability.
The steps should include making genuine progress in eliminating all
forms of military business; launching renewed investigations into other
serious human rights abuses in which security services have been
implicated, such as the 2004 murder of Indonesian human rights activist
Munir Thalib; and allowing civilian courts to investigate and prosecute
crimes committed by military personnel against civilians.
"It's in the US's interests to make sure that Indonesia is serious
about a professional, rights-respecting military," Richardson said.
"President Obama should use this opportunity to ensure Indonesia curbs
the sort of brutal conduct that led the US to cut off aid to Kopassus
in the first place."
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.