U.S. Committee for Refugees urges Indonesia to respect rights of internally displaced Acehnese

Amid reports that as many as 140,000 persons are internally displaced in Aceh, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) calls upon the Indonesian government to respect the rights of displaced persons enshrined in international human rights and humanitarian law.
The displaced Acehnese are fleeing massacres by soldiers and police as well as clashes between Indonesian troops and separatist rebels. Thousands of villagers are taking shelter in mosques, schools, and government offices. Others are living in the open air with only plastic sheets to keep out the rain and heat. Aid workers say a lack of medical care is hindering efforts to prevent illness and disease.

Many Acehnese have sought independence from Indonesia since the late 1970s. The separatist group Aceh Merdeka ("Free Aceh") has in recent months called for a referendum on Aceh's status, much like the one planned for the Indonesian-occupied territory of East Timor.

In August 1998, after the discovery of mass graves in Aceh, Indonesia's military chief apologized for the human rights violations committed during the several years that Aceh was designated a special military operations zone. Although Indonesia subsequently withdrew many combat troops from Aceh, violence has lately escalated in the region. More than 200 people -civilians, rebels, and soldiers-have reportedly died since May. Between 40 and 70 Acehnese were killed in one day of violence, July 24.

"USCR calls upon both the Indonesian military and the members of Aceh Merdeka to pursue a peaceful resolution to the conflict," said USCR policy analyst Jana Mason. "At the same time," she continued, "the Indonesian government has a particular responsibility to ensure that the rights of the internally displaced Acehnese are respected."

Such rights are noted in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. They include rights to security, shelter, food, and medical care-including aid provided by humanitarian assistance organizations-as well as protection against torture, disappearance, and extra-judicial killing.

Other regions of Indonesia, including East Timor as well as Maluku and West Kalimantan, have seen significant levels of violence and displacement in recent months. "I hope that when Indonesia's new government is in place later this year," Mason stated, "it will take serious steps to recognize and address the human rights violations that have long plagued the nation, causing many people to flee their homes. In the meantime, the security and other needs of the displaced must be ensured."

Background to the Aceh conflict is detailed in The Least Risky Solution: Malaysia's Detention and Deportation of Acehnese Asylum Seekers, published by USCR in December 1998.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees is a nonprofit, nongovernmental, humanitarian organization that works for the protection and assistance of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people around the world.

Contact: Melissa Wyers