Subject: 'I fear Indonesia will make the same mistakes'

The Jakarta Post Friday, September 16, 2005

'I fear Indonesia will make the same mistakes'

The country's truth and reconciliation commission is yet to begin working as its candidates are still being screened. A three-day conference on the subject ended on Wednesday; among the speakers was Howard Varney, advocate of the High Court of South Africa who also has experience in Sierra Leone and East Timor. He spoke to The Jakarta Post's Ridwan M. Sijabat and Ati Nurbaiti. Excerpts follow:

Question: What are crucial requisites to reconciliation?

Answer: No single truth and reconciliation commission has been able to reach true reconciliation. All have had to concede that it is a process, not only at the community level but also at individual levels.

Some have put preconditions on reconciliation; disappointingly there were preconditions like forgiveness in the Indonesian law (on the truth and reconciliation commission).

Others say that the full truth should come before reconciliation; others say reparation should come before reconciliation, while others even say that full justice should be reached before reconciliation.

It's true that reconciliation cannot be generalized across countries; it's country and culture specific. In Sierra Leone we have had different applications but there were certain principals.

But it's up to people to come up with initiatives, it cannot be left to the leaders.

We were careful in Sierra Leone not to put preconditions; we did only in the beginning but not toward the end because we realized there would not be full reparations or full justice; such preconditions would mean condemning Sierra Leone never to have reconciliation, denying local, traditional and many successful initiatives.

What should be done to make the truth and reconciliation commission effective?

We should indeed highlight the "success" of other commissions but it is more important to learn from their mistakes and failures.

Indonesia more or less has adopted the South African model, so it is particularly crucial to refer to where South Africa fell short. But I don't think this was highlighted enough.

One problem is the truth and amnesty formula; we invented it. But it is only effective with a credible and serious criminal justice response.

Prosecution failed against some perpetrators in South Africa, which undermined the very agreement for truth and amnesty and betrayed the trust of victims.

In many cases amnesty (has) sacrificed the rights of victims to life, to dignity and the right to settlement in court.

Here I fear Indonesia may make the same mistakes. I hope there is serious prosecution and not a repetition of the ad hoc (human rights) court (which acquitted several high ranking officers in the East Timor case) which has undermined the judicial process here. If not Indonesia should consider abandoning the (provision of) amnesty.

Those experienced with these commissions say expectations should not be too high; what would be a more realistic expectation?

Many victims will want the truth of what happened to their loved ones and who were behind the atrocities. Sadly the commission may not be able to help them in all of the cases.

But the commission (should) at least put down the essential story of what happened in the years of oppression, at least to put a version of history that is a representation of the testimonies that have been put to them.

And where it is appropriate, to assign responsibility on organizations, the government and even key individuals behind the commitment of widespread atrocities.

Could you share your view of the Truth and Friendship Commission of Indonesia and East Timor?

It seems that it is a bilateral and political exercise to cement relationships between the two countries.

That is not a bad objective but I have some reservations regarding whether such an exercise can get to the bottom of what went down in East Timor; because in a sense the name gives away the key objective to pursue friendship at all costs.

There's already been a truth and reconciliation commission in East Timor; in the near future it will publish its reports, and that commission was recognized internationally.

I would have thought that East Timor and Indonesia should have waited before the reports were published before assessing the need of a new commission highlighting the very same subject.

I'm also concerned that the fact that the commission makes provision for amnesty will appear to fly in the face of earlier initiatives such as the Serious Crimes Unit (at the Dili court) tasked to persecute serious crimes in East Timor.

It also appears to fly in the face of the recommendation of the United Nations panel of experts (which visited East Timor) calling for the delivery of justice of those who were responsible for atrocities.

Since 1999 the two nations have already established relations and friendship. So is the commission really to establish friendship, or is it to replace other attempts to bring justice?


Back to September menu 
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu