Harold Hongju Koh
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
On-the-Record Briefing on Recent Trip to Indonesia
As released by the Office of the Spokesman
Washington, DC, October 12, 1999
MR. REEKER: Welcome back to the State Department. This afternoon, we are very pleased to have our Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Harold Hongju Koh, with us to talk about his recent trip to Indonesia.
Assistant Secretary Koh was in Indonesia October 3rd through October 10th to look into the human rights and humanitarian crisis in East and West Timor. And, without any further ado, we will turn over to the Assistant Secretary.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Thanks for coming out on this busy day. I think we have distributed a copy of the statement that I gave at the press briefing in Jakarta on Saturday so let me just hit the high points and then take questions.
My trip was a result of a meeting between Secretary Albright and Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas at the UN General Assembly in which there was a discussion about the human rights and humanitarian crisis in West Timor. And during that meeting, the Secretary was invited by Foreign Minister Alatas to send a delegation to examine the human rights and humanitarian conditions in West and East Timor following up on the delegation that had been sent by -- that included Assistant Secretary Julia Taft.
We traveled in a group of seven US Government officials and two Indonesian officials. We went to Kupang, Atambua and Dili, as well as talking to refugees in Bali. We visited about a dozen camps of displaced persons in West Timor and we spoke to about 100 East Timorese living in various kinds of situations. We spoke to civilian officials at the national, provincial and local level, UN officials, religious leaders and NGO representatives.
We went initially to focus on four questions. First, the question of the safety of individuals living in the camps; secondly, to look at the humanitarian assistance levels in the camps; third, to look at the issue of whether international organizations, journalists and NGOs had free access to the camps; and, fourth, to investigate the question of whether people who are living in those camps had the free choice of whether to stay or whether to return to East Timor.
In the end, those four questions really collapsed into one, which was the question of safety. We found that the Indonesian civilian authorities, in particular, are making a very good faith effort to try to provide humanitarian assistance. In some camps, we found that it was at acceptable levels. At others, it was well below but that was not for lack of effort; it was really because of the dispersion of the camps, et cetera.
On the other hand, the safety considerations were absolutely predominant. People in the camps are living in fear of the militias. We saw widespread evidence of their presence. International humanitarian NGOs and particularly NGO workers are ready to help but the militia presence in the camps is so pervasive that they can't enter the camps safely to do this kind of work. We were, ourselves, in a situation in which we were -- part of our group was surrounded by militias who were making threatening remarks and that gave us a sense of how dangerous it is.
With regard to the question of free choice, we were struck by the degree of disinformation in the camps. The individuals with whom we spoke had little information about what was going on in East Timor and virtually all the information that they had was inaccurate. There is a widespread belief that INTERFET forces are persecuting individuals who are returning to East Timor and there is a great fear that if they were to be returned, that they would face this kind of problem.
On my way out, I had full debriefings with government officials at all levels. I found widespread agreement that the militias are the problem and I would be happy to talk about those meetings as well.
QUESTION: Did you find a chain of command between the militias and the formal Indonesian military? Is there a further step up the chain of command to a civilian authority in Indonesia?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, we found clear examples of what I think could be called the intertwining of activities or collusion in their activities. Whether we could establish a chain of command beyond that I think would take a lot of further investigation.
It is very clear that the activities that occurred in East Timor were the result of collusion. We heard various reports, but they were systematic on this account in Dili. One report that we heard consistently -- which would need to investigated, but we heard it with great consistency -- was that the destruction that was done in Dili was done first by TNI military who would go into houses, steal television sets, break windows and that the broken windows would then be signs that militia should come in, loot the rest of the buildings and then burn them to the ground. The buildings were systematically destroyed, not just in Dili, but outside.
We took a helicopter ride over the western part of East Timor, going all the way down as far as Ainaro and Dili was by comparison in much better shape. There was at least rubble still there. Many of the buildings had roofs. Other parts that we saw, they were literally burned right to the ground. It was done in such an organized and systematic fashion, it didn't appear to be the result of just some sort of random spasm of violence.
Let me also say in the West Timor camps there seems to be a great deal of role confusion between militias and military. Many people were wearing the traditional militia garb, which was camouflage pants, T-shirts; some were wearing full-fledged TNI garb. There are many camps in which there were demobilized military or militia who had come from East Timor. In conversations that we had privately with a bunch of individuals, the clear sense that we got was that there's a very heavy connection between them. Now, whether the militias follow orders was a little bit less clear.
We had heard that in the last two weeks since Julia Taft was there, there were two significant changes. The first was that the militia presence in the cities, the overt militia presence was reduced. On the other hand, there appeared to be greater militia presence at the border. We drove to the border to a town called (inaudible). As we approached the border, even though we got a kind of orchestrated tour of the area, it was pretty clear that there was very, very extensive militia presence.
We also heard reports that a number of the militia were signing up for and joining the military and becoming absorbed into the military. We use the term, "pervasive"; the extent of militia presence in the camps was pervasive. There seemed to be a pervasive interconnection between the militia activities and the TNI activities.
Now, in Jakarta, as you know, the TNI general staff has made a number of strong statements about getting the militias under control and we repeatedly emphasized to them that those statements that had been made in Jakarta were not being carried out on the ground in West Timor. And they took those concerns very seriously and said that they would be moving to try to remedy that problem on the ground. That was really just Saturday so I think we will see what ends up happening.
I think it is also worth pointing out that all civilian officials that we spoke to were extremely frustrated and remarkably open about the extent to which the militias were the problem. Regional and local officials told us very openly that they could not do their work, that the militias were kidnapping individuals, private citizens, and taking them off the streets, that they were looting and that it had created a massive problem for civil authority. And they were saying that this was something that everybody had to get on top of and they were quite open in telling us this and they asked us to help them.
QUESTION: Could you say -- you said in your opening remarks that there seemed to be a lot of either disinformation or misinformation by people in the camps. Do you know whether that disinformation or misinformation was as a result of Indonesian Government officials telling them that the international forces were harming people in East Timor as, you know, possibly a way to avoid their returning to East Timor? I mean, did this seem to be an orchestrated campaign or was it just bad rumors started by God knows whom?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, let me go first to the misinformation or lack of information. Most people in the camps were bewildered, confused, afraid to talk to us. If they did, we only got snippets of their accounts. It is very clear that they have no current information. Most of them don't have radios. There is no radio station that is giving accurate information out of East Timor.
So what we now know from here, basically by watching international news and people have gone into Dili or to Baucau, they did not know. Also, unlike in Kosovo, there was not the option for people to go back, check out the environment and return and give an account, so there was no account of that nature.
The Indonesian press had, over a lengthy period of time, been giving very heavy emphasis to reports of INTERFET targeting of individuals and this was widely accepted as true and greatly exaggerated. Many people said that they were afraid to go back because they thought they would be targeted by INTERFET.
We made it very clear in all of our conversations, both with private journalists and with government officials that, whatever the source, this disinformation and misinformation needed to be corrected because how could these individuals make a free choice as to whether or not to stay where they are or to return unless they know the conditions to which they might be returning.
QUESTION: Do those people in the camps in West Timor have the option to leave the camp and go back into East Timor, to go back home? And, secondly, to what extent is the TNI, the military of Indonesia covering for, in collusion with the militias?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, on the first question, there was a real evolution of government policy during the week that we were there. Minister Haryono, the State Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, with whom I spent a lot of time, both at the front and the back end of the visit, is I believe deeply committed -- as is his agency -- to trying to return people who want to return. There was a lot of initial discussion about how that was possible. I told them very frankly about what I thought were the limitations of people being able to exercise their free choice in this environment.
By the end of the week, he had I think come to the conclusion that people needed to be removed as quickly as possible so long as it was done in conjunction with UNHCR. On Friday, they started this exodus program in which two planes went out and they were talking about upping it to four planes. So I think that people can express their views and be taken to these planes.
Now, the real question is do they have sufficient capacity for all the people to get out. If people reveal their preferences and are not being able to be taken, are they safe? And I drew both of these concerns to his attention. His response was that they would try to do everything they could; and, frankly, they saw that there was a problem getting the militias under control.
I think at this point, the militias seem to have a variety of masters. Many of them are subunits and they report to whoever they report to. Some of them are in larger groups. On the day that we left, we heard about a large group of about 500 militias gathering at a hotel in Kupang and it wasn't clear who they answered to.
It was also clear that the TNI is trying to, based on a lot of internal and external discussion, send orders to them or commands to them. I mean one thing that I would say was that on the second day they were here, they were in the Kupang camps, we split up into three different groups. I went off with one group and was interviewing a refugee in the camp in a tent and another group of ours went off and was surrounded by about 100 militia and other people who were screaming at them, accusing them of being Australians who had committed various kinds of atrocities.
We were in the company of security people who became very concerned and asked us all to leave the camp. I then called the regional governor who had been a very gracious host and told him that our mission was being obstructed, that we were in danger, that we couldn't continue this unless we were given better security. The next day, we had a very impressive security arrangement, protection and we got a very clear sense that the militia had been told to leave the scene. And they did. That suggests some measure of control at least with regard to things like that. Whether that measure of control extends to other things I guess remains to be seen.
QUESTION: So, it is dangerous for even delegations like your own; it's dangerous for everybody to be in those camps and around those camps?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Yes. In fact, this was illustrated very graphically by a European NGO worker who had been trying to get access to one of the camps. We invited this person to go with us into one of the camps on the theory that she might be able to finally see the inside of a camp in our company when she couldn't see it by herself. She was also the subject of a lot of whispering and screaming from people. Then when we left, it became pretty clear that she was in some danger, so I arranged for her to be escorted out. She then changed her hotel, let me a note saying she was okay.
Now, the basis on which they were suspicious of her is that apparently she had been in East Timor at some point and a lot of people affiliated this with her being sympathetic to the pro-independence movement. We heard lots of reports that international -- basically, any Caucasian person was in tremendous jeopardy. In some of the camps that we visited, UNHCR vehicles had been either stoned or otherwise harassed.
On the other hand, we did have experiences where if issues were properly advanced in the sense that we went to one camp, our liaisons went out and talked to the camp leadership, explained who we were and what our mission was, we walked around the camps and, although there was a tense feeling in the camps, people spoke to us and the situation was manageable and under control. On the other hand, we had a large group of people with us and we're US diplomats and so I didn't draw any good conclusions from that about private individuals.
QUESTION: At this stage, have you come to any conclusions about what kind of long term accountability should there be for the crimes committed in East Timor? Does the United States favor some kind of tribunal for these crimes?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: The US favors accountability and the question is what kind of -- getting to the bottom of the issue -- is the most effective way to proceed. And that was the subject of pretty extensive discussions that I had in Dili and also in Jakarta.
I think the first challenge is to get people on the ground in East Timor with a coordinated mission of finding out what happened and to conduct interviews. As you all know from the press accounts, the extent to which atrocities or accountability issues have been pursued has been interspersed among other INTERFET activities. The INTERFET officials told us that they would follow up various accounts when they got them but, frankly, it was difficult to do given the number of other things they had to do.
I had been in Kosovo months ago and my sense that things were at a far, far, earlier stage in terms of putting people together, understanding how to secure a site. It was really just basically a difference in experience level.
I think a second question is: Who ought to be doing this investigating? As you know, the International Commission of Inquiry has been announced but, at this point, I don't know if there are any officials on the ground who are carrying out that inquiry. I think they are supposed to be coming. They're trying to set the stage for them. They need to establish a basis of cooperation to get in and follow the evidence.
A third issue is: What about the role of the national -- Indonesian National Human Rights Commission, which has investigated with mixed success other incidents in other parts of the country? We met with the chairman of that commission, Mazuki Darusman. While we were there he announced who the members of the group that would be investigating the East Timor situation were going to be in that group, includes a number of experienced and respected NGO people. They have not yet gone out to visit the area, nor have, so for as I know, they have had formal meetings with the international commission members to decide how they're going to coordinate any activity they might have. We understood from the High Commissioner's Office on Human Rights that they intend to cooperate with the domestic investigation to the extent possible.
And then the real question is: What will the evidence show? Let me say this: In looking at the human rights situation on the ground in Dili, what struck me was that the core of the violation that I saw was massive forced displacement and destruction of property as a weapon of both retaliation for an independence referendum and as a way of intimidating people. And it's clear that in the process of that a lot of other things occurred as well, which are going to have to be investigated to get to the bottom of it.
But this was really a scorched earth campaign and, ironically, scorched earth campaigns, if they really succeed, may end up having fewer casualties than non-scorched-earth campaigns that are targeted directly against the populations. This is something that is going to have to be investigated very carefully by people on the ground with the cooperation of INTERFET and any subsequent civilian administration.
QUESTION: What is going to have to be done now in East Timor for there to be a return of those refugees to have some place to live? Is it safe in East Timor? Are the militias gone to the borders pretty much or what?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I think it is clearly safe in part of East Timor. It's safe in Dili and the INTERFET -- I met with Major General Cosgrove -- has expanded out and there are a whole number of secure villages and towns including Baucau.
The only way they have of measuring the population of Dili in any particular moment is how many people show up for the daily food distribution. On Thursday, about 75,000 people showed up. Given that the population of Dili was about 111,000, that's an impressive number, although many of those people came from elsewhere.
Where the people were living, it was not clear. There's a lot of structures that don't have roofs but are standing. There are a lot of people walking through the streets and in remarkably good spirits, I must say. It was incredible given what they have gone through. Another factor was that UNHCR officials on the ground in Dili told me that they had the capacity to receive between 50 and 55,000 refugees immediately. They believed that they could take 30,000 in Dili and another 20 to 25,000 in Baucau.
Now, the first planes went on Friday from Kupang had about 160-something, 170 people in the planes. They were, as you saw in the news accounts, welcomed. The plan was for them to sleep at the soccer stadium in the center of town which has a kind of tent city going. I was later told that, in fact, when they went to the tent city, everybody had been hosted by somebody else and that nobody ended up sleeping in the stadium. That suggested the capacity to receive refugees in Dili is higher than anybody thinks, at least for some time.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a question on China?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Sure.
QUESTION: The Chinese have said that, in fact, they're going to stick to their birth control policy, that they are not even going to relax any of their standards. They are going to continue to distribute condoms and forced sterilization. I wanted to get the Department's reaction on that. Has there been a change in policy and can you sort of go over the policy in regards to that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: This is something we discussed at length in our Human Rights Report each February in which I discussed both in my human rights dialogue with the Chinese in January and also in the briefing that I gave after that. Our concern is with regard to those allegations of forced invasions of privacy or overbearing people's will. And the Chinese defense has traditionally been that they, themselves, at the national level don't attempt to do this but that it's done at the local level. I think, in fact, over time there is a lot of question as to whether these policies are being administered in a way that are coercive. And this is something that we continue to raise and to investigate.
I do think that there has been -- and we've documented it -- some evolution in the policies themselves. But I think the core of the issue is whether it's coercive or not, and that's the issue that we continue to investigate and to press on if we find coercion.
(The briefing concluded at 2:10 P.M.)
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