Subject: A call for action in East Timor

A call for action in East Timor University of California Riverside Highlander

By: Elizabeth Venable Contributing Writer

East Timor may have faded from the international spotlight but its scars and stains still run deep. One solution to heal these wounds is justice for the crimes committed.

A broad vision of justice and accountability would first call for the trial and punishment of generals and other war criminals who have orchestrated the slaughter of the East Timorese people. Up to this point, official moves towards justice have either not received sufficient power or mandate and have thus been ineffectual (such as the UN/East Timor Serious Crimes Unit - Indonesian officials have been unwilling to extradite any of its officials and as such the SCU has only been able to prosecute 74 lower-level Timorese militia members) or have been absolute shams (such as the ad hoc human rights courts for East Timor in Jakarta, which provided only one conviction of only a short time in jail). It is fairly clear that there has been no form of justice for the tragic crimes committed in East Timor. It is thus imperative that the international community keeps its attention on the creation of either Kofi Annon's proposed Commission of Experts or on the creation of an international tribunal like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Unfortunately there have been moves by both the East Timorese government and the Indonesian government away from legal mechanisms for justice and the prosecution of individuals responsible for the destruction in East Timor. In January, the leaders of both countries, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Xanana Gusmao, agreed to work towards a bilateral Truth and Friendship Commission to provide justice without a legal mechanism. The Commission made its debut last fall at approximately the same time as the Commission of Experts was being promoted and is seen by many as an attempt to divert momentum from the UN-based process.

At this point it is important to mention three things about leaders in general: leaders do not always or generally speak for members of civil society, the views of leaders do not always or generally coincide with the interests of civilians and leaders are often bound by conflicting imperatives and constraints and thus may take weaker or more conservative positions on issues than the general population would like. It seems clear that the government of East Timor sees an active effort towards justice as being in conflict with establishing normal relations with its closest neighbor.

However, the fact that the East Timorese government is reluctant to push for justice does not mean that the East Timorese people do not want or need justice. The leader of Dili's (the capital of East Timor) Catholic Church (the East Timorese are largely Catholic-animist), Bishop Alberto Ricardo da Silva, has stated his opposition to the Commission on the grounds that it leaves the movement for justice behind. It is important to note that East Timorese officials such as Foreign Minister José Ramos Horta have clearly stated that they are moving forward with the Commission even in the absence of a civil consensus.

While the East Timorese government may not feel that it has the leverage to call for justice and reparations for fear of economic punishment or instability, we have no such limitations. It seems unlikely that there will be any sort of justice for the atrocities committed in East Timor as we as internationals do not act - the pressure will simply subside.

We should remember East Timor as an example of the methods of the Indonesian military. We must draw parallels to the situation in tsunami-ravaged Aceh, whose crises the Indonesian military may attempt to exploit politically, even while they continue offensive military operations against rebels or supposed rebels in that area. We must make sure that the TNI does not receive funding from our military until its practices are changed and until there has been real accountability for the crimes officers have committed.


November 1975: The newly decolonized nation of East Timor declares its independence.

December 1975: Indonesia invades East Timor. Approximately 200,000 people are thought to have died from repression and famine.

Late-1990s: Internal turmoil and pro-democracy movements in Indonesia open up the possibility of independence for East Timor.

August 1999: Almost 99% of a 450,000-strong electorate votes in UN-organized referendum. The people overwhelmingly vote for independence from Indonesia.

September 1999: Militias under the direction of the Indonesian military (TNI) in a retaliatory campaign as a result of the vote ravage East Timor. After the scorched-earth campaign of 1999, 1,500 people were left dead and 250,000 were forced into temporary exile.

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