Indonesia’s Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan
Why did Secretary Esper invite an accused war criminal to the Pentagon?

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s hosting of Indonesia’s defense minister Prabowo Subianto at the Pentagon this month was a clear about-face in U.S. policy. Subianto had been banned for the last 20 years from entering the United States due to his implications in crimes against humanity in Indonesia and East Timor. 

This ban had remained in place through the entirety of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, and was considered long-settled U.S. foreign policy — until he was issued a visa and met with the secretary on Oct. 16.  Why did the DoD choose to make this break and what signal does it send to the rest of the world that the United States is conferring with such individuals, in the heart of the American defense establishment?

Subianto is a former son-in-law of the late Indonesian president Suharto, the military-backed ruler who governed Indonesia for 31 years from 1967 to 1998. Prabowo Subianto served as commander of the army’s special forces under Suharto and has been accused of myriad human rights violations, including abductions of pro-democracy activists in the months leading up to the end of Suharto’s dictatorial rule.

Official independent investigations into serious human rights violations in 1998 concluded that Subianto was aware of the violations and as the commander of the army’s special forces, was ultimately responsible for the disappearance of activists in 1997 through 1998. The allegations against him have never been tried in court, and he has never been held accountable. Instead he ran unsuccessfully for high office numerous times and finally was elevated into a position as chief defense representative for his country in 2019. To this day Subianto continues to deny all allegations against him. 

Since 2000, the U.S. Government has further imposed military assistance restrictions on the Indonesian military and its special forces unit Kopassus, after the military committed gross human rights violations during its scorched earth campaign in East Timor in 1999. Kopassus soldiers were also involved in forced disappearances and the murder of the Papuan activist and leader Theys Eluay, in 2001. While a few soldiers were eventually sentenced in military court, their commanding officers never faced trial. 

In lieu of real accountability in Indonesia, the U.S. Government’s policy to ban Prabowo Subianto over the last 20 years represented its concern for human rights, signaling support for attempts to obtain justice and relief by survivors and the families of victims who suffered torture and other ill treatment under his special forces. 

It was against this backdrop that Subianto announced in early October 2020 that he had been invited to visit the Pentagon. 

According to an October 16 joint statement regarding Secretary Esper’s Meeting with Subianto, the two leaders discussed “regional security, bilateral defense priorities, and defense acquisitions,” while “both leaders shared their desire to enhance bilateral military-to-military activities and work together on maritime security.”  In addition, Esper “communicated the importance of upholding human rights, the rule of law, and professionalization as the two countries expand their engagement.” 

It is not clear whether current U.S. restrictions on military assistance will now be lifted .

 According to news reports, Prabowo Subianto communicated his appreciation for the United States’ support for Indonesia’s defense modernization. 

Amnesty International, along with several Indonesian human rights groups, sent an October 13 letter urging that the invitation to Prabowo Subianto be rescinded if it purported to provide immunity for the crimes of which he is accused. Under Article 5 of the UN Convention Against Torture, the U.S. Government is obligated to investigate Subianto, and if there is sufficient admissible evidence that he is criminally responsible for torture, bring him to trial or extradite him to any other country willing to exercise jurisdiction over the alleged crimes. 

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), author of a law that prohibits U.S. military aid to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity, condemned the Trump administration’s invitation. In a statement Leahy said:

 Indonesian Minister of Defense Prabowo has been credibly implicated in gross violations of human rights, including kidnapping, torture, and disappearances, and under our law he is ineligible to enter this country. By granting a visa to Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo, the President and Secretary of State have shown once again that for them ‘law and order’ is an empty slogan that ignores the imperative of justice. 

Meanwhile, as the Pentagon and State Department rolled out the welcome mat for Subianto, on the other side of the globe Indonesian survivors and families who suffered under his special forces continue to wait for justice, accountability, and reparations.