Vol. 5, No. 3
East Timor Speaking Tour
||United Nations Takes Over East Timor, Belatedly and
by Charles Scheiner
In 1975, the United Nations Security Council unanimously recognized the inalienable right of the people of East Timor to self-determination and called on Indonesia to withdraw all its forces from the territory without delay. But it took almost 24 years - during which time the East Timor suffered unimaginable horrors - before the international community took effective action to implement that resolution.
Jakarta entered serious negotiations on East Timor for the first time in a quarter-century following interim president B.J. Habibie's announcement in January that the East Timorese could have their freedom if they no longer wanted to be part of Indonesia. And, on May 5, Indonesia and Portugal (the legal administering power for East Timor) agreed on the process for the August popular consultation.
The UN and Portugal believed that establishing a UN presence in East Timor was an essential wedge, and conceded much to enable this. They allowed tens of thousands of Indonesian troops to remain in East Timor during the referendum, and gave exclusive responsibility for security to the Indonesian police. Indonesia, on the other hand, thought they could scare the people of East Timor into voting to be a province of Indonesia.
As ETAN and the East Timorese independence movement said at the time, both sides miscalculated. From April on, we decried the cruel hoax of inviting the East Timorese people to vote in an atmosphere of intimidation. We reported the widespread fear of militia/military crackdown if people voted for independence, and urged that the mandate of the unarmed UN civilian police advisors be expanded.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan knew that the arrangement was a recipe for disaster, but no government - certainly not the United States - would pressure Indonesia to improve the conditions for the referendum. As militia violence continued, and their links to Jakarta became more obvious to the international community, Annan was unable to make significant changes in the process. He delayed the vote twice, and increased the number of Military Liaison Officers (MLOs), unarmed international soldiers who consult with the Indonesian army, similar to the unarmed Civilian Police Advisers (Civpols) who advised the police.
By July, the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) included 271 Civpols, 50 MLOs, and about 632 international staff and volunteers, led by Briton Ian Martin, a former Amnesty International head. UNAMET hired about 4,000 East Timorese as drivers, translators, and election workers. Virtually without exception, the East Timorese and international UNAMET staff performed their duties admirably, repeatedly demonstrating courage and commitment to a free and fair vote.
Also in July, UN-accredited international observers began to arrive - ETAN provided about one third of the 125 members of the International Federation for East Timor Observer Project (IFET-OP), the largest international delegation. We worked closely with UNAMET to address specific incidents. IFET-OP issued nine reports, numerous press releases and many letters recounting our findings and pointing out the impossibility of carrying out a meaningful vote in a climate of violence and intimidation.
Over the next two weeks, 450,000 people registered to vote, more than anyone expected. But as the campaign began in August, the militias increased their threats. On August 17, IFET-OP reported "warnings by government officials and pro-autonomy spokespersons of large-scale violence if the East Timorese people reject the autonomy option in the August 30 vote, along with widespread reports of arms shipments entering the territory." We recommended "that the international community work diligently through the UN to broaden the UNAMET mandate as it relates to security, and to increase significantly the numbers of United Nations security personnel in East Timor before the August 30 vote."
The UN took one step to address the growing climate of fear - they proclaimed, with posters and banners, that "No matter what the outcome on August 30th, UNAMET will NOT leave after the consultation."
During most of the two-week campaign period, the pro-independence side could not campaign publicly - attacks on their offices, workers and supporters made it too dangerous. But on the last Thursday before Monday's balloting, they held a large rally in Dili, and 20,000 joined in a caravan around the city. As I watched this joyous expression of nationalism, it seemed incongruous that participants were risking their lives. The next day, the militia killed a dozen people in different parts of Dili. Belatedly, the international community spoke up, and the violence stopped. The UN increased UNAMET's allotment to 460 Civpols and 300 MLOs, but they never arrived.
Consultation Day was exhilarating, as 98.6% of the voters braved threats to cast their ballots, many arriving before dawn. The vote stands as a monument to the dedication of UNAMET personnel and the incredible courage of the East Timorese people, but the disaster which followed was predictable and preventable.
Three days later, IFET-OP assessed that the voting itself was administered in a free and fair manner. However, we were concerned that the inadequate international response to escalating militia activities "has taken great risks with the lives of the East Timorese people. That massive bloodshed has not yet occurred does not mean that security measures are adequate. It is clear that the East Timorese people live in a state in which they fear for their lives."
Militia attacks increased, with killings of East Timorese and terrorization of foreigners. East Timorese who worked for UNAMET were targeted, as militia roadblocks sprang up across the country. UNAMET and IFET-OP began to withdraw from the districts across East Timor to Dili and Baucau.
Two days later, the result was announced, 78.5% for independence. Militia violence exploded. Within three days, virtually all internationals, including our observers, fled the territory. Most international UNAMET people were evacuated to Darwin, Australia, but 300 remained in Dili, seeking safety in the UN compound with over a thousand East Timorese UNAMET workers and neighbors. Although headquarters ordered the internationals to evacuate, they refused to abandon the people they had put in harm's way. After several days, the UN moved everyone in the compound - East Timorese and foreigners - to Darwin, leaving the rest of the East Timorese population to be killed, displaced or abducted.
For a week of apocalypse, the international community waited for Jakarta. The Security Council held several emergency meetings, but took no action. They waited while Indonesia declared martial law in East Timor - accepting the lie that the Indonesian military was not directing the destruction. They set deadlines and nothing happened. President Clinton and the World Bank hinted at military and economic sanctions.
Finally, the Security Council dispatched five ambassadors. They met with President Habibie in Jakarta, and traveled to East Timor with General Wiranto on the 11th. The Indonesian government could no longer cover up the massive destruction they could not or would not control. The same day President Clinton suspended all U.S. military ties with Indonesia. In the UN Security Council, the United States voiced support for the introduction of an international force into East Timor.
It was five months, or 24 years, too late. The next day, President Habibie told the visiting ambassadors that he would accept an Australian-led multinational military force. On September 15, the Security Council authorized the force, and soldiers arrived in East Timor a few days later. The Indonesian military largely withdrew, and there have been few confrontations between the International Force for East Timor (InterFET) and Indonesian soldiers or militias. But two months later, much of East Timor is still not under international control, many tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for, and close to 200,000 East Timorese people remain virtual hostages in militia-controlled camps in West Timor and Indonesia.
International and NGO relief agencies are finally in East Timor in force, but it took several weeks and they made many mistakes. Although the situation is gradually improving, the devastation is so great that it will take years to rebuild - and many people still do not have basics of food, water and shelter. With the start of the rainy season, the situation could get worse before it gets better.
On September 24, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) held an extraordinary special session on East Timor. The two-day Geneva meeting heard from witnesses and governments about recent Indonesian crimes in East Timor. They directed U.N investigators to go there, and supported a commission of inquiry to fix responsibility for the crimes. After initially agreeing to cooperate, the Indonesian government has refused access to military records. Since Jakarta's military and police destroyed their facilities and files before withdrawing, it will be hard to follow the evidence up the chain of command.
The world's powers are already easing up the pressure. Although international investigators are in East Timor, they are not supported by the Security Council. On October 25, the Council acquiesced to Indonesia-prompted Chinese objections, removing backing for the UNCHR investigation from the resolution establishing the U.N. Transitional Authority in East Timor.
UNTAET, the 2-3 year interim government until East Timor develops its own, is in place. Although it is headed by the capable Brazilian Sergio Viera de Mello, its structure perpetuates a fundamental error that has led to so much trauma for East Timor: there are no East Timorese people in decision-making roles.
When Indonesia withdrew from East Timor, they took a quarter of the population with them. The UN continues to defer to Indonesian sovereignty - another fundamental error - allowing Jakarta to prevent East Timorese from returning home and to block humanitarian aid and international access to East Timorese people in West Timor and other parts of Indonesia.
A World Bank team is now in East Timor, evaluating models of economic development. We must make sure they understand that the East Timorese must have the mandate, the support, the tools of justice and the resources (an ethical world would owe them reparations) to develop and control their own political and economic destiny.
For a quarter-century the world abandoned them to the brutality of the Indonesian military. Then they were promised self-determination, and abandoned again. We must not let it happen a third time. With the Indonesian military now gone, the nascent nation faces a nearly insurmountable task of reconstruction. Perhaps the international community will act more quickly this time.