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ICRC role during the Irian Jaya hostage crisis (January-May 1996)


In response to grave allegations that have been made regarding the tragic end to the hostage crisis in the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya in May 1996,The ICRC has been accused of collusion with the Indonesian security forces and complicity in the killing of Irian Jayan villagers in Geselama on 9 May 1996. the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) wishes to clarify the facts regarding its involvement in those events.

 The chain of events  

On 8 January 1996, members of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), the liberation movement in the western half of New Guinea, took 26 persons hostage in Mapenduma. All but two of the Irian Jayans among the group were quickly released. One of these two persons was handed over to ICRC delegates in March 1996 and immediately taken to Timika to join his family. The remaining 11 hostages – four Britons, five Indonesians and two Netherlanders – were held for over four months. (Among them was Martha Klein, who was three months pregnant when she was captured.) Local initiatives were immediately launched, in particular by the Christian clergy, in a bid to bring about an early release of the hostages. The Bishop of Jayapura, Monseigneur Munninghoff, met the leader of the hostage-takers, Kelly Kwalik, on 25 January. Mr Kwalik gave him a message for the ICRC, requesting that it act as a neutral humanitarian intermediary. After obtaining the consent of the other parties concerned (the British, Indonesian and Netherlands authorities), the ICRC agreed to play this role and, on 7 February, sent a five-member team to the area for the purpose, initially, of contacting Mr Kwalik. Despite very difficult condit ions (dense jungle, high altitude, chronic bad weather and major logistical problems) contact was finally established and a meeting was arranged on 25 February. This led to an initial visit to the hostages which took place in Geselama on 25 February. Four further visits – all in Geselama – followed (on 26-27 March, 17 April, 5 May and 8 May). In addition, ICRC delegates were able to meet from time to time with small groups of the hostages, although not in private, during their contacts with the OPM in Geselama.

The ICRC set the following priorities for its visits:

- to provide food for the hostages, in particular to offset a vitamin deficiency;

- to regularly check the hostages'health and, where needed, to provide care;

- to restore contact between the hostages and their families through an exchange of letters and photos;

- to arrange for the hostages'unconditional release on humanitarian grounds or, should this endeavour fail, to act as a neutral humanitarian intermediary between the parties concerned.

During the period over which ICRC visits took place, the Indonesian authorities agreed to take no action whatsoever within a radius of 12 kilometres of Geselama.

Regarding the monitoring of the hostages'health, it should be noted that in addition to Martha Klein, whose pregnancy was closely monitored by the ICRC, two hostages were in sufficiently alarming condition to warrant immediate release. All ICRC requests to this effect were rejected out of hand by Mr Kwalik.

Negotiations between the Indonesian authorities and Mr Kwalik aimed at freeing the hostages made virtually no progress between late February and early May, with Mr Kwalik's persistence in making their release conditional upon immediate independence for western New Guinea. As March drew to an end, the lack of progress caused growing impatience among the Indonesian security forces, who on more than one occasion expressed their desire to break off negotiations and take direct action. Indeed, it was only at the ICRC's insistence that negotiations continued until early May, when an agreement was finally worked out between the Indonesians and Mr Kwalik. The terms of the agreement were that the hostages would be released, that the Indonesian security forces would refrain from any attack or reprisals, that the ICRC would set up a programme of medical and agricultural assistance in Irian Jaya and that the release ceremony would be filmed with a view to distributing it to the media. A release ceremony in keeping with local customs was arranged for 8 May and many tribal leaders were invited to attend.

When the ceremony was completed on 8 May and the ICRC delegates were preparing to leave with the hostages, Kelly Kwalik announced to the surprise of all that he would refuse to release the hostages as long as western New Guinea was not declared independent. Despite protests from the tribal leaders, the members of the OPM present and the ICRC itself, Mr Kwalik remained adamant. The head of the ICRC's Jakarta delegation, Mr Henry Fournier, pleaded with Mr Kwalik, pointing out that by refusing to release the hostages as per the agreement that had been reached, Mr Kwalik was paralysing the ICRC in its ability to continue to work as a facilitator, since the other parties to the agreement would certainly lose all trust in Mr Kwalik's good faith. In addition, Mr Kwalik was placing his own people at great risk as his breach of the agreement would also mean that the Indonesian army would no longer feel bound by its undertaking not to take action. In addition, Mr Fournier reiterated that the law of armed conflict, with which Mr Kwalik claimed to comply, was crystal clear: the taking of hostages was prohibited at all times and in all places.

Mr Kwalik repeated his refusal to release the hostages. Mr Fournier then in formed him that, that being the case , the ICRC could no longer act as a neutral humanitarian intermediary in the negotiations between the OPM and the Indonesian, British and Dutch authorities, and that if the ICRC visited the hostages in future, it would only be to check on their health and well-being, and to ascertain whether Mr Kwalik had changed his mind. A prominent member of the OPM, Mr Silas Kogoya, did not agree with Mr Kwalik's decision, and stated his opinion that the hostages would be released the following day. He asked the ICRC to return at that time.

The following morning, the ICRC delegates were unable to establish contact with the hostages, who had been taken to another place during the night. The delegates were, however, able to speak briefly with Mr Kwalik, who reaffirmed his position. Several hours later, the Indonesian security forces launched a rescue operation. The operation ended on 15 May with the forcible release of nine of the 11 hostages, two hostages of Indonesian nationality having been killed.

The ICRC therefore has the following reply to the allegations made against it.

1. The ICRC promptly informed the OPM of its decision to withdraw from the negotiations  

Kelly Kwalik had formally undertaken to release the hostages on 8 May and the Indonesian authorities had pledged to take neither military nor other action to release the hostages nor to take any form of reprisal. By changing his mind at the last minute, Mr Kwalik unilaterally wrecked the agreement, and this fact was clearly pointed out to him at the time. No ambiguity is possible – Mr Kwalik was placed squarely in front of his responsibilities. He knew that the only course of action left to the Indonesian authorities was the use of force. That he realized this is especially clear from what he told the ICRC's head of delegation, and the fact that he wasted no time in moving the hostages to another location, which he doubtless considered to be more secure.

It is thus wrong to state that Mr Kwalik was deceived in this respect by the ICRC. It is also mistaken to base this point of view on the date of the ICRC's press release, which was indeed published in Geneva following the delegates'eleventh-hour meeting with Mr Kwalik on 9 May. The press release was in no way for the information of the OPM but rather for the British and Netherlands authorities and for those countries'media, which were closely following the affair.

There is no discrepancy between the published accounts of ICRC staff. The female delegate concerned had the task of maintaining contact with the hostages and with Mr Kwalik, and that is why she told them that a new visit would take place in several days (and also why she remained in Timika following the fruitless visit of 9 May). Why did she stay on? The answer may be found in the title of the press release of 9 May: " ICRC limits its role to giving aid to hostages " . The press release stated further that " the ICRC will stay on in Irian Jaya to provide medical assistance to the hostages (...) and will remain at the parties'disposal " , which matches what Mr Kwalik was told in person. In practical terms this meant that the ICRC had to maintain contact in case Mr Kwalik changed his mind, for had that happened it would have been necessary to take action to resume negotiations. Above all, it meant that the ICRC felt that it was unable to abandon Martha Klein to her fate – she was over seven months pregnant at the time and faced the prospect of having to give birth, as a hostage, in the middle of the jungle.

Two other hostages were ill and their condition was deteriorating dangerously. Finally, if the ICRC were to withdraw completely, the tenuous links that it had been able to maintain between the hostages and their loved ones would have disappeared completely. The ICRC thus felt obliged, on purely humanitarian grounds, to maintain contact, and it is extremely regrettable – to say the least – that some have failed to take these factors into account, for they are vital to an understanding of the situation.

2. The ICRC did not give the signal for military intervention by Indonesian security forces  

It was the ICRC which, for over a month, did everything in its power to ensure a peaceful resolution of the crisis by means of the hostages'release. When their release was prevented, the ICRC was robbed of any argument against military action. Even if one imagined that the ICRC had given some sort of signal, that signal would have been quite superfluous as Mr Kwalik's reneging had relegated the organization to the sidelines, there to await the inevitable. Its only hope was to attempt to limit the consequences from a humanitarian point of view, which it did precisely by maintaining contact with Mr Kwalik and, to the extent possible, with the hostages themselves.

3. The ICRC did not help the Indonesian authorities in organizing their military intervention  

It is totally erroneous to suggest that the ICRC would in any way have helped organize military intervention by the Indonesian security forces. Geselama, where the ICRC visited the hostages on five occasions, was known to everyone and the Indonesian forces had committed themselves to taking no action in the immediate area throughout the negotiation process. When the agreement was broken on 8 May, Geselama automatically lost its status as a protected area, and obviously Mr Kwalik fully understood this fact since he immediately moved the hostages further into the jungle. Allegations have gone so far as to accuse the ICRC o f actually taking part in the military operation, and an ICRC delegate of even opening fire on the village's inhabitants. This accusation is as farcical as it is grotesque. It can nevertheless not be ruled out that Westerners posing as ICRC delegates took part in the operation.

Equally serious are allegations that the Indonesian security forces made use of the helicopter chartered by the ICRC during its visits, in order to be able to approach Geselama on the afternoon of 9 May without arousing the inhabitants'suspicion. Certain accounts also mention the security forces'use of the red cross emblem. Though once again it is impossible to prove this conclusively, the allegations made are sufficiently credible and consistent to warrant serious attention. These allegations are all the more grave as civilians are said to have been killed during the operation.

It should be added that during its activities in Irian Jaya, the ICRC chartered a helicopter from one of the few companies then providing such services in the territory. When not being used by the ICRC, the helicopter flew for other customers – mostly business concerns – in whose use of the machine the ICRC had no say.

4. The ICRC did nothing to conceal misuse of the red cross emblem by the security forces  

Shortly after the hostages were rescued, the ICRC began hearing rumours regarding the circumstances in which the operation had been carried out. Two months later, Irian Jayan representatives alleged to the head of the ICRC's Jakarta delegation that the organization's delegates had been involved in planning the military operation, and even accused one delegate of taking direct part in it. The ICRC thereupon contacted the authorities concerned to inquire into the circumstances of the hostages'release and, in particular, into any misuse of the emblem– without succe ss. With none of its staff present in Irian Jaya for over a year thereafter, the ICRC was unable to meet direct witnesses or to gather tangible proof.

Any such misuse of the red cross emblem is a grave breach of international humanitarian law, as this can make it impossible to reach the victims of conflict, thus depriving them of the protection and assistance to which they are entitled. Therefore, in view of the seriousness of the allegations levelled, the ICRC is taking formal steps to fully clarify, as soon as possible, what actually happened.

Ref. LG 1999-222-ENG