Subject: AGE: Australia must help Timor find justice

The Age

Australia must help Timor find justice

August 26, 2005

War criminals are still on the loose in Indonesia, but does anybody care? Robin Perry and Eleanor Taylor-Nicholson investigate.

ON AUGUST 11, the governments of Indonesia and East Timor formally launched the joint Truth and Friendship Commission at its headquarters on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. The five Indonesian and five Timorese members of the commission will, according to Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, "resolve once and for all the events of 1999".

South Africa's famous truth and reconciliation commission has been cited by foreign observers when describing the TFC but this is a misrepresentation. The South African commission was founded on the noble goals of community reconciliation and redemption, whereas the TFC is nothing more than the latest in a series of attempts to avoid holding Indonesian military suspects and militia accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The events of 1999, to which Ramos Horta referred, encompassed wanton, widespread violence in the territory of East Timor, including the killing of more than 1500 people, the rape and torture of thousands of others, the mass deportation of a quarter of the population and the wide-scale destruction of everything that Indonesia had ever contributed to the country. This included power lines, irrigation systems, public and private buildings, all crops and livestock and all public records. AdvertisementAdvertisement

Although much of this destruction was carried out by Timorese militias, it has since become clear that these militias were formed and armed by the Indonesian military to intimidate the population into rejecting the option of independence at the UN-run referendum in August 1999, and to punish them when the result of the vote was announced.

Despite statements of outrage and demands for justice from the international community and the UN, the architects of the violence of 1999 continue to enjoy impunity in Indonesia. An international tribunal was rejected in 2000 on the proviso that Indonesia would try the perpetrators. These trials are now universally regarded as a sham and resulted in only one conviction, of notorious Timorese militia leader Eurico Guterres, who is free pending appeal; no Indonesian military officers were convicted. At the same time, a parallel process in East Timor was rendered impotent by the Indonesian Government's refusal to extradite indicted suspects, more than three-quarters of whom reside in Indonesia.

The victims of the violence and the international community are now inevitably cynical about Indonesia's statements about human rights and justice. In July 2004, a UN-appointed Commission of Experts found attempts to achieve justice to date to be inadequate and flawed.

The TFC will not, and cannot, repair this situation. The Commission of Experts acknowledged that much. The TFC will deny justice to victims of the violence for all time by granting lifelong amnesties to suspects who "co-operate fully in revealing the truth", in violation of international law. The possibility of the TFC finding the "truth" is highly questionable, given its extremely limited powers. For example, it has no power to examine military records, and it is unlikely senior members of the military will divulge the TNI's part in the violence in good faith. Without any threat of prosecution, there is little incentive for individuals to come forward. The concept of "friendship", in the context of broad criticism of the TFC by Timorese and Indonesian civil society, is also blatantly political.

In an era of bold posturing on human rights, it is incumbent on Australia and the international community to actively resist any attempt to grant amnesty for war criminals. To allow the perpetrators to escape punishment would be to endorse continued violations by the military in the turbulent provinces of Aceh and West Papua, not to mention the rest of Indonesia.

It should not be forgotten that the Security Council has issued many bold resolutions condemning the violence in East Timor in 1999 and calling for justice ­ which Indonesia has continued to ignore. Giving any support to the TFC now, in direct contradiction to the UN's own expert opinion, will further weaken the legitimacy of the UN in international justice.

In the aftermath of September 1999, there was a palpable sense that, finally, something would be done about the long history of violence suffered by the East Timorese. These expectations have yet again been frustrated. The East Timorese people are incapable of trying war criminals protected by a neighbour more than 200 times its size.

Australia, a nation that played a leading role in East Timor gaining independence, and the international community as a whole have a moral and legal duty to assist East Timor in its search for justice. This should not be sacrificed at the altar of political convenience.

Robin Perry and Eleanor Taylor-Nicholson are international lawyers at the Judicial System Monitoring Program, a monitoring, advocacy and law-reform organisation based in Dili, East Timor.

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