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A Course in Human Rights - 2002-12-23

As all of us know, some countries deal with conflict and opposition within their borders in different ways. The Indonesian military, which has had a reputation for tough tactics against internal opposition, seems to be trying to change its reputation. And it is doing so before its soldiers actually have to deal with real life situations. As Patricia Nunan reports, the curriculum for Indonesian military cadets now includes “a course in human rights”.

A group of young soldiers learning the basics of weapon handling.

They’re first year students at the Indonesian Army Academy, in Magelang West Java.

The academy is one of three that graduate more than five hundred cadets a year to serve as officers in Indonesia's army, air force, navy and marines.

These cadets will face different challenges from those of years past, especially in the field of human rights.

Human rights groups say the armed forces have committed atrocities throughout Indonesia for years, using heavy-handed tactics against student demonstrators and separatists in some parts of the country.

The most serious allegations come from East Timor. The military has been accused of involvement in hundreds of killings and the destruction of much of the territory when residents there voted for independence in 1999.

Now for the first time, the military has invited journalists to discuss its new human rights curriculum.

During three years at the academy, each cadet takes just over one hundred hours of course work in human rights and humanitarian law, out of seven thousand hours of classes.

Brigadier General Noer Muis is the vice-governor of the academy in Magelang.

“Essentially we teach them basic knowledge of human rights. What human rights are and the do’s and don’ts in human rights. We also have case studies, for example, the East Timor case, Yugoslavia and also Afghanistan.”

It is the East Timor example that has human rights groups worried.

General Noer was the army commander in East Timor when armed militia groups virtually seized control in the weeks surrounding the 1999 vote for independence. Human rights groups charge that members of the armed forces were involved in the rampage.

General Noer says his case serves as a good chance for his students to see Indonesia's judicial process. He also says that even if he is on trial, it does not mean he did anything wrong.

But the students say they're not sure the accusations against the military for its role in the killings and destruction in East Timor are accurate.

“As students we only learn and we don’t follow those issues, but I’m not 100 percent sure I believe it happened.”

Since the start of the war on terror, there’s been a growing demand from Washington for military ties with the Indonesian military to be resumed, so that the military can participate more fully in the war on terror.

But some say that would be premature because of the lack of prosecutions from the East Timor tribunal. Sidney Jones is with the International Crisis Group in Jakarta.

“I don’t see at the moment that there’s any will on the part of the military to actually stop abuses, enforce discipline and actually punish offenders. If there were such political will, we would have seen more prosecutions than we’ve had so far. We’d have seen far more transparency from military officers about exactly what their troops were responsible for doing. What we see are denials. And what we see are support from the very top levels, i.e. President Megawati herself, for the military, almost suggesting that any means are possible as long as the integrity of Indonesia is maintained.”

In the meantime, the students will continue to hit the books to join a military that itself is undergoing a process of change.

International Crisis Group Website

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights