Indonesia Requests U.S. to Reduce Limitations on U.S. Security Aid to Indonesian Special Forces Unit

East Asia and the Pacific

Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu asked U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis to reduce limitations on U.S. security aid to one of its Special Forces units following Mattis’ trip to Indonesia last week. Secretary Mattis visited Indonesia to increase cooperation between the two countries and attempt to entice Indonesia away from China and Russia.

In 1999, the United States cut off all aid to the Indonesian military and banned an Indonesian Special Forces unit, known as Kopassus, from having contact with U.S. military over concerns about human rights violations in East Timor. The decision to cut aid was also mandated by the Leahy Laws that were enacted one year prior.

The Leahy Laws, named after U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, prohibit U.S. grants of training and equipment to a foreign country’s security force unit if there is credible information that the unit has “committed a gross violation of human rights.” For example, aside from Indonesia, the United States has suspended security aid to units in the following countries: Columbia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Egypt, Iraq, Mexico, and Nigeria.

Under the Leahy Laws, the United States may reinstate funds to units previously determined as “tainted” if the unit undergoes a “remediation” process. The funds may be reinstated if “the [State and Defense] Departments determine that the government of that country has taken, or is taking, effective measures to bring those responsible to justice.” Such remediation measures may include, but is not limited to: “impartial and thorough investigations; prosecutions or administrative actions; and appropriate and proportional sentencing.”

In 2010, the United States determined that the Kopassus unit had apparently met some of the remediation criteria and reduced some, but not all, of its restrictions. However, the legal restrictions remained in place to prevent the U.S. military from becoming “entangled” with the Kopassus unit and limited engagements to basic preliminary level contacts.

Then-Secretary of Defense Gates stated that, in order for the United States to remove other limitations, the Indonesian military would have to ensure that:

"[P]ersonnel convicted of human rights violations be removed from the special forces; that the military and Kopassus pledge to cooperate with future civilian or military investigations and prosecutions of human rights abuses; that anyone convicted of human rights abuses in the future be prohibited from serving in the military; and that personnel credibly alleged to have committed human rights abuses in the future be suspended pending an investigation."

However, as of 2013, Kopassus members were found to have engaged in human rights abuses. The Indonesian army determined that twelve members of Kopassus were guilty for the murder of four prisoners being held in an Indonesian jail. The army stated that the extrajudicial killings were committed in retribution for a Kopassus soldier who had been murdered one month prior.

Despite the restrictions on Kopassus, the United States has, on average, provided around $30 million in security aid to Indonesia in the past ten years. In FY 2010, this amount jumped to more $70 million with new Section 1206 aid to build the capacity of Indonesia’s maritime special forces to disrupt terrorist activities. More recently, in FY 2016, the Defense Department asked to provide an additional $17.9 million for Indonesia to assist them with maritime communications and surveillance.

During Mattis’ trip to Indonesia, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryacudu stated that Kopassus members have still not been allowed to travel to the United States for training, which is typically a way the United States provides training to foreign military personnel around the world. Mattis stated that the Kopassus unit had “reformed enough,” including removing “abusive personnel from its ranks, to warrant removing the remaining limitations.

Such a reduction would allow for increased cooperation between the Kopassus and U.S. military and comes at a time when the United States is considering giving more aid to the region to bolster defense cooperation. The United States sees Indonesia as a important partner because it is “the world’s third largest democracy and the most populous Muslim-majority nation” and would help to aid U.S. policy in the region, including acting as a check on China’s maritime expansion.

Mattis said there were current rules that included procedures for rehabilitating units alleged to have committed or de facto committed acts of human rights violations. In response to current news, U.S. Senator Leahy stated that before resuming aid or lessening the current limitations on Kopassus, “The question Secretary Mattis needs to answer is whether the Indonesian government has punished the Kopassus officers who ordered and covered up those horrific crimes, and whether members of Kopassus today are accountable to the rule of law.”

As the Defense Department continues to engage with Indonesia on a variety of U.S. security issues, it will be important to see whether U.S. restrictions on Kopassus will be removed. It will also be important to see how the U.S.-Indonesia relationship develops as a result of any decisions on the restrictions.

Breanna Heilicher is an intern at Security Assistance Monitor and covers a range of US security assistance issues.