Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was in Indonesia last week and met with officials in an attempt to normalize military-to-military relations between our nations. A particular area of contention is Indonesia’s Special Forces unit called Kopassus, which is accused of human rights abuses.
Due to the Leahy Amendment, U.S. military forces cannot work with individuals, units, or even governments that are suspected to have been involved in human rights abuses. The Foreign Assistance Act not only prevents weapons sales to alleged human rights violators but also prevents the Department of Defense from providing military training. This has recently played out in the Philippines, as NEWSREP reported back in July:
Leahy vetting has been an issue for U.S. Special Operations Forces working in the Philippines in the past, and it seems the bombastic statements President Duterte has been making has led to it being an issue once more. Senators Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin have filed “The Philippines Human Rights Accountability and Counternarcotics Act of 2017” which protests alleged human rights violations by the Philippine National Police (PNP) in regards to the extra-judicial killings of drug dealers. The PNP chief responded to this by stating, “If they will really block the arms procurement, then we have to shift our focus to other sources of firearms,” alluding to Russia and China which would be happy to step into power vacuums left by the United States, as evidenced by recent events ranging from Syria to Qatar.
The United States may have qualms about providing military assistance to those suspected of war crimes or human rights abuses, but other actors vying for influence may not. In recent years, Indonesia has had territorial and fishing rights disputes with China in the South China Sea and may be seeking out a strategic partner to balance against Chinese hegemonic ambitions. Likewise, the United States may be seeing a stronger ally in the region, as South Korea and the Philippines have strained relationships with the U.S. government for their own social and political reasons.
A Pentagon spokesman states that a joint exercise will be held between U.S. forces (likely a Special Forces ODA) and Kopassus Unit 81 focusing on subjects such as, “crisis response, hostage rescue, and safeguarding human rights, among others.”
Human Rights Watch has accused Kopassus of carrying out a scorched earth campaign in East Timor in the 1990s. Eleven unit members were found guilty in court of kidnapping student activists in 1998. In 2007, seven Kopassus members were found guilty of mistreating a separatist leader who died, and interestingly, “the military prosecuted 11 Kopassus soldiers for breaking into a prison and killing four detained civilians allegedly involved in a lethal bar fight with another Kopassus member,” according to a Human Rights Watch Report.