Mon, 26 May 2003

The political cost of Aceh's civilian casualties

Kusnanto Anggoro, Senior Researcher, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta

Casualties are rising as the war in Aceh intensifies. Hundreds of schools throughout the province were destroyed in the first two days of the military encounter. Military strategy, political posturing or simply psychological warfare may drag both sides into targeting the civilian population in their offensives. Predictably, in the days to come there will be more civilian casualties.

The military leadership in Jakarta has already ordered soldiers to root out the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), while the regional military emergency authority in Aceh has identified many quarters of civil society in Aceh, including those proposing political solutions to the crisis, as supporters of GAM, and thus potential targets of military operations. Meanwhile, GAM is using guerrilla strategies, hiding behind and among the people, which means crushing GAM will likely increase the number of civilian casualties.

Both sides should respect the rules of war. Politically, however, the TNI is in a much more difficult position than GAM. It is important, therefore, for the military to show restraint. This is not going to be easy. Some generals recognize the need for limited use of force and for minimizing civilian casualties. But many in the military argue that it might be difficult to avoid civilian casualties in an insurgency war. More importantly, the military believes it will not be held responsible for civilian casualties, as it enjoys a political mandate that legalizes the operations.

Such a view is completely wrong and unprofessional. Yes, the civilian authorities, the government, has already legitimized the operations by declaring martial law in Aceh (Presidential Decree No. 23/2003). It is also true that commander of the military has the right to devise what strategies and tactical operations may be needed on the battlefield.

The most troubling question here, however, is not about the legality of the operations. Rather, it concerns whether the military, as director of the operations, will be obliged to implement operational accountability.

Soldiers must behave as professionals capable of achieving the political objectives of the war with minimum resources and minimum unnecessary casualties. Thus, the military leadership in Jakarta should devise a code of conduct at the operational level that helps define when the use of force is justified. They must make the code public, to ensure operational accountability that will serve not only to create external control but also to ensure internal discipline among soldiers.

Three principles are relevant to this point: Military necessity, humanity and proportionality.

The first principle, military necessity, relates to the primary aim of armed conflict -- the complete submission of the enemy at the earliest possible moment with the least possible expenditure of personnel and resources. This principle should justify the application of force not forbidden by international law. The most important rule in this is for the armed forces to engage only those forces committing hostile acts or clearly demonstrating hostile intent.

The second, closely related to the first, is the principle of humanity. This principle forbids the infliction of suffering, injury or destruction not actually necessary for the accomplishment of legitimate military purposes.

While resulting in a specific prohibition against unnecessary suffering, the requirement of proportionality and a variety of more specific rules, the concept of humanity also confirms the basic immunity of civilian populations and civilians from being targeted for attack. Indeed, the immunity of the civilian population does not preclude unavoidable incidental civilian casualties that may occur during the course of attacks against legitimate targets.

The third principle is that of proportionality. This requires that the force used be reasonable in intensity, duration and magnitude, based on all facts known to the commander at the time, to decisively counter hostile acts or hostile intents and to ensure the continued safety of the armed forces.

To obey these principles, the field commander must guide not only target distinction, but also hostility criteria, while being prepared to adopt a gradual escalation in the use of force. Soldiers must distinguish between legitimate targets and civilians. Collateral civilian damage arising from military operations must not be excessive in relation to the direct and concrete military advantage anticipated from such operations.

Meanwhile, hostility criteria should meet a set of objective factors to assist soldiers on the ground in determining whether a potential assailant exhibits hostile intent, thus clarifying whether shots can be fired before receiving fire. Soldiers are not allowed to bomb a school. They, as a converse example, are not obliged to hold back an air strike on an ammunition dump simply because a farmer is ploughing a field beside it.

The conduct of an operation should show a graduated use of force by ground troops, even in an ambiguous situation, before resorting to deadly force. It is important at this point to include such measures as giving a verbal warning, using a riot stick or perhaps firing warning shots into the air.

Only by following these principles will a military operation attain the rational balance between legitimate destructive effects and undesirable collateral effects. The anticipated military advantage must be balanced against other consequences, such as the adverse effect upon civilians or civilian objects. This involves weighing the interests arising from the success of an operation on the one hand, against the possible harmful effects upon protected persons and objects on the other.

Needless to say, standard measurements are required to ensure whether all of these principles are being respected. Unfortunately, we do not have the mechanisms and institutions needed to perform judicial reviews of the use of force and possible military misconduct. Internal discipline within the Indonesian Military (TNI) is problematic, in part because of a lack of external accountability.

Perhaps it is at this point that the media and non- governmental organizations (NGOs) may have a vital role to play. The media, for example, can and must expose and discuss problems in the provision of law enforcement services.

And NGOs are uniquely placed to conduct research, lobby political leaders and disseminate information. The public, therefore, will have alternative sources to judge whether the armed conflict in Aceh is still in line with a so-called "just war". The National Commission on Human Rights would be credible institution for performing this job.

The international community is watching very closely what happens in Aceh. Quite a few countries and organizations have decried the war in Aceh and called on both side to resume negotiations. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is "deeply concerned" about reports of renewed fighting in Aceh. A political solution has always been the best instrument for resolving insurgency problems. Many fear that the military, which has a poor record on human rights, will continue to abuse civilians.

Indeed, so far most countries remain committed to supporting Indonesia's territorial integrity. Yet, this is not without reservation. Excessive civilian casualties and/or a prolonged war in Aceh may change their position. The military doctrine of today is not the 19th century German doctrine of Kriegsraison, which asserted that any measure in war was justified when the necessities of a particular situation justified it.

The TNI must not help GAM internationalize the war in Aceh by fighting the wrong war in the wrong manner.

The writer lectures on strategic and security studies at the postgraduate studies program at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.