Wed, 13 Aug 2003

Experts call for an end to Aceh military operation

M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The military offensive to curb the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has resulted in rampant violations of the Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in times of war, experts say.

They called on the government on Tuesday to halt the security operation in the country's westernmost province.

Kusnanto Anggoro of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said on Tuesday that since the government launched the joint operation in Aceh on May 19, it had failed to uphold the Geneva Convention in the protection of war victims.

"Poor intelligence work has resulted in the military mistaking civilians for GAM members," Kusnanto told a seminar on the commemoration of the Geneva Convention here.

Member of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) M.M. Billah concurred, saying that the ongoing military offensive in the resource-rich province had led to gross violations of human rights.

"A team set up by Komnas HAM to probe possible human rights violations in Aceh has collected evidence that extra judicial punishment, mass graves, killing of non-combatants, rape and sexual abuse have indeed taken place during the military operation," he said, adding that all of that constituted a violation of basic humanitarian law.

Kusnanto cited the low number of firearms seized from alleged GAM members compared to the total number of captured GAM members as an example of how the military had wrongly perceived civilians as combatants.

"If the military manages to seize only 200 firearms, but the number of captured GAM members reaches almost 2,000, I suspect that there are many civilians who have been treated as rebels," he said.

He was quick to add that there were a number of civilians and suspected GAM members who had to undergo questioning without the presence of legal counselors, which constituted a violation of Article 3 of Protocol II of the 1977 Geneva Convention.

He also branded the reregistration of civil servants and the reissuing of ID cards for the Acehnese people as a violation of the ban on collective punishment of civilians in the convention.

Kusnanto said after the first three months of the military campaign, it was high time the government decided that the next three months would be the last for the use of military force.

"Before the six month period is over, President Megawati Soekarnoputri should have come up with an appropriate exit strategy from the Aceh military operation," he said.

He said that the withdrawal of around 40,000 troops from Aceh would also be very helpful for the government to maintain security in Java and other regions in the country ahead of the coming general elections.

Indonesia is scheduled to hold the legislative elections on April 5, and presidential elections in August 2004.

Officials originally suggested that the offensive could be wound down within six months, but the military had recently indicated a longer timeframe.

The martial law administrator Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya earlier said that "depending on the supporting factors" the military operation might even take years.

The first three months of the military operation has taken its toll in the deaths of 49 military personnel and police, 198 civilians and 481 GAM members.

Over 500 school buildings have been torched, leaving about 40,000 students with no place to study.

"There are also school buildings which are used as military barracks," he said.

The outspoken member of Komnas HAM said the torching and occupation of school buildings were a violation of the Geneva Convention which stipulates that nonmilitary facilities should not be targets in a combat between two adversaries.

He said a Komnas HAM investigative team would soon leave for Aceh to embark on another probe into the human rights conditions in the troubled province.