Indonesia Poses Test for US on Human Rights ; Bush Wants to Give Military Aid to Jakarta. Critics See Terror War Eclipsing Democracy

By Howard LaFranchi writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

Indonesia Poses Test for US on Human Rights ; Bush Wants to Give Military Aid to Jakarta. Critics See Terror War Eclipsing Democracy


Howard LaFranchi writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The outrage was global in the late 1990s when Indonesia's military and goon-like militias associated with the army ran roughshod through independence-seeking East Timor. The human rights abuses were so wanton that the United States cut all cooperation with the Indonesian armed forces.

Now just three years later, the Bush administration wants to reestablish assistance to Indonesia's military - arguing the world's fourth-largest country and largest majority-Muslim nation is too important to the fight against international terrorism to hold at arm's length.

The idea is sounding alarms among human rights activists and some members of Congress, who fear Indonesia is one more example of how concern for human rights is suddenly taking a distant back seat to national security interests.

"The environment has got much tougher for human rights principles," says Michael Ignatieff, a human rights expert at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Citing a list of countries to which the US has extended aid or sent military advisers to help fight a terrorist threat - including Afghanistan, the Philippines, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan - Mr. Ignatieff adds: "Does the focus on national security really justify ... supplying arms to anyone who waves a flag in our face?"

To these critics, the new era of played-down human rights concerns is alarmingly reminiscent of the cold war. Just as the cold war caused the US to place a premium on friendly regimes over governments that respected democratic rights, the international battle with terror is shrouding human rights concerns.

"During the cold war, anyone who said they were anticommunist got our support, and we often ignored their repressive, corrupt practices, or their involvement in other illegal activity," says Tim Rieser, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, one of the US Senate's top human rights watchdogs.

A similar trend is advancing now, he says. Amnesty International places a spotlight on the waning of human rights concerns in its 2002 international report, saying the "gains of many years" have been "set back" by curbs on civil liberties and a resurgence in the power of militaries.

Supporters of military assistance in cases like Indonesia's say that in addition to helping hit terrorism in its cradles, aid also gives the US leverage - including in demanding improvements in respect for human rights - where it wouldn't otherwise have it.

American leverage with both Pakistan and India in their conflict over Kashmir is as strong as it is because of the military and other ties the US has with both countries, supporters note.

Sounding a similar argument on Indonesia, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is aware of the kinds of problems in Indonesia that raise human rights groups' antennae. "The military's problems are significant," he says, noting they have been guilty of "abusing their own people." But Mr. Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia, says the risks are too great to leave the sprawling archipelago country without close US involvement helping it along the right path. …

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