Indonesia deploys British arms against protesters

British military equipment is being used by the Indonesian authorities against civilians in remote parts of the country.

British military equipment is being used by the Indonesian authorities against civilians in remote parts of the country.

Despite promises by Foreign Office ministers that UK arms exported to the country are not used for internal repression, a photograph seen by The Observer shows a British-made Tactica water cannon vehicle deployed in the troubled eastern province of West Papua.

Eye-witness reports have claimed that the cannon have been used to control demonstrators protesting against Indonesian rule and widespread human rights abuses in the region, including thousands of extra-judicial killings. It is claimed that the water in the cannon is mixed with chemicals that makes demonstrators' eyes burn. The vehicles were made by Alvis in Coventry and sold to Indonesia in 1998.

Last week the Foreign Office minister Ian Pearson told the House of Commons: 'We are not aware of any UK-supplied equipment currently deployed in Papua. We have consistently made clear to the Indonesian authorities that no British-supplied equipment, or indeed any other equipment, should be used in any human rights abuses.'

The photographic evidence has provoked outrage among groups campaigning against Indonesian rule in the province.

Benny Wenda, a West Papua tribal and political leader now living in exile in Britain, said: 'When I was in West Papua I saw with my own eyes the Indonesian soldiers using Hawk jets made in the UK to bomb our villages. They killed thousands of my people and most of my own family.

'Now they are using British weapons again. So this is my message to the government and people of the UK: please, please, stop selling weapons to Indonesia.'

Indonesia has been a test case of British foreign policy since former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announced that the government would have an 'ethical dimension' after Labour came to power in 1997. The Indonesian army has been accused of using British equipment such as Hawk jets and Scorpion tanks to suppress independence movements in East Timor and Aceh.

Labour ministers have always justified these highly controversial arms sales by claiming they have received assurances that the weapons will not be used by the Indonesian authorities to repress their own civilians. Now Pearson has admitted in a parliamentary written statement that these assurances are not 'enforceable'.

He added: 'We no longer seek guarantees or assurances, assurances are not enforceable.'

Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock said the admissions were a 'disgrace'. 'For years they have been telling us that it is OK to sell these weapons to countries like Indonesia because they have assurances they will not be used against civilians. Now they are telling us that all along these assurances are not worth the paper they are printed on.'

Paul Barber, of the Indonesian Human Rights Group Tapol, said: 'Once again this demonstrates the government's appalling lack of concern about the end use of UK equipment and the ineffectiveness of its monitoring procedures. In acknowledging that assurances are unenforcable, the government is admitting that the Indonesians cannot be trusted. This has dire implications for the rights of the Papuans, given Indonesia's previous record of using UK equipment in East Timor, Aceh and against its own civilians.'

A Foreign Office spokesman would not comment on any change of policy in exporting arms, but said: 'We will investigate any credible reports of British equipment being used for human rights abuses overseas.'


Antony Barnett, investigations editor

The GuardianTramp

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