Subject: Le Monde: Kofi Annan's lonely struggle

The lonely struggle of Kofi Annan

Le Monde, Oct. 31/Nov. 1, 1999, enquiry by Afsané Bassir Pour

In a thirty year-long career, the diplomat had never seen anything like this. The UN Secretary General's letter to Indonesia's president is sent back, rejected. Written at the end of April, it contains, in seven points, the conditions deemed "indispensable" by Kofi Annan for the UN to be able to organise the referendum on East Timor's independence: a strict control of armed groups, the immediate arrest and charge of those inciting violence, the redeployment and departure, one month before the vote, of the Indonesian military forces from the territory, and especially the disarming of all anti-independence militias before the beginning of the electoral process. More than a political affront, this flat refusal from Jakarta is a warning, four days before the signing of the tripartite accord between Indonesia, Portugal, the former occupying power, and the United Nations, planned for May 5. An accord which entrusts the UN with the organisation of the referendum and Indonesia with security in the territory.

"Some wanted to make the letter public immediately, before the May 5 meeting" the Peruvian Alvaro de Soto, deputy Secretary General for political affairs, recalls. Others feel that its publication would disclose a confrontation and would risk to "torpedo" the negociation process. Kofi Annan settles the matter. The letter will not be made public. He decides to send a "memorandum" to Jakarta reiterating the seven conditions and adds an annex detailing Indonesia's responsibilities. Still, the signing on May 5 by Indonesia and Portugal does not reassure the Secretary General. He conveys his concerns to the Security Council.

- Wednesday, May 6, 1999, antechamber of the Security Council

"The atmosphere was extremely accomodating for Indonesia, a diplomat recalls, member countries preferred to greet the "historical" decision of President Yusuf Habibie to allow a referendum rather than examine the possible risks". Kofi Annan takes precautions: "I started, at the end of May, secret negociations with countries ready to deploy troops in East Timor, in case. . ." Australia accepts the principle of creating such a force and mentions the possibility to lead it. Why then did he not insist for the force to be deployed in East Timor before the vote? "Just because no country, I mean no country, would accept to deploy its forces without Indonesia's agreement", the Ghanaian diplomat answers. After the letter was rejected, he explains, "I had the choice between insisting on an international presence in East Timor, which as the Indonesians clearly told us would end the negociations, or take the risk of an armed resistance of the anti-independence forces, a risk that the East Timorese leaders asked me to take".

Resolution 37/30, which gave the UN Secretary General the first mediation mandate since the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975, was voted in. . . 1982. "Fifteen years and three Secretary Generals later, the case was still moribund", Antonio Monteiro, a then young Portuguese diplomat who became the ambassador of his country at the UN, explains. But as soon as he took office in January 1997, Kofi Annan decided to give a priority to the East Timor issue, which had caused more than 200,000 victimes in 24 years. The Secretary General named as his "personal" representative for East Timor the Pakistanese diplomat Jamsheed Marker, who went there immediately. "For a quarter century, Jakarta and Lisbon had camped on two opposite positions, he explains during a visit to New York. A compromise was needed." After a first conversation with the independence leader José Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmão, in prison for seven years, the compromise takes the form of a draft text on the autonomy of the territory. A text which, almost two years later, will be accepted by the parties, at the end of 1998.

- Wednesday, January 27, 1999

In power since May 1998, Indonesia's president B. J. Habibie makes an about-face on East Timor. He surprises the international community by mentioning for the first time the possibility of independence for this territory. A "visionary and courageous" bet for some, "ill-considered and dangerous" for others. Given the proximity of presidential elections in Indonesia, this is the last "window of opportunity" for the East Timorese to choose their destiny. "Habibie took his decision without having thought of the consequences", Spanish diplomat Francesc Vendrell, UN Asia-Pacific director, feels. He says he is "almost convinced" that it was taken without consultation, "neither with his cabinet, nor with his foreign minister Ali Alatas, nor, especially, with the agreement of the army's head, General Wiranto". Hence, the diplomat feels, the army's violent reaction. When he arrives in New York in mid-January to negociate the modalities of the "popular consultation" (the Indonesians never accepted the word "referendum"), Ali Alatas proposes that the decision on independence be taken after discussions with East Timorese leaders inside and outside the country. A proposal rejected by the Secretary General: "The UN could in no way accept this proposal, it would doubtlessly have been rejected by the Indonesian Parliament", Francesc Vendrell explains.

- Friday, June 11

For the first time, the UN establishes a civilian presence in East Timor. This mission, Unamet, has the charge of organising the referendum. The situation is tense. The anti-independence militias have stated their intention to resist violently. Jamsheed Marker goes back to Jakarta. During a meeting with President Habibie and General Wiranto, the issue of an international presence is raised.

It is "firmly and categorically rejected". The Indonesian power being at the origin of the notion of independence, it intends to ensure its implementation by itself. The Indonesian army will warrant security in East Timor. "What did you want us to say?" Jamsheed Marker asks. When the president and army head of a UN member-State give us guarantees, is the UN in a position to say no, I don't believe you, you are liars?" Once more, the Pakistanese diplomat meets Xanana Gusmão, whose release he had meanwhile obtained but who stayed under house arrest.

"The categorical rejection of an international presence by Jakarta worried Xanana a lot, Mr Marker recalls, but he wanted to take the risk and, being certain of the result of the vote, he wanted to put Indonesia in front of a fait accompli." Gusmão recommends the continuation of the electoral process.

- Thursday, July 1

On the ground, the situation deteriorates. In New York the Security Council is silent. Despite the daily briefings of under-Secretary General Prendergast, no action is taken.

"It was as if you talked to deaf people", a diplomat tells us. It was obvious, a high-ranking UN official says, "that for all governments in the world, the stability of Indonesia with its 220 million inhabitants (sic) was definitely more important than the independence of East Timor with its 800,000 inhabitants".

- Monday, July 5

The UN is therefore alone. No country accepts to put the pressure on Jakarta. In the Secretary General's cabinet, divergences reappear. Mr Annan exhorts the Council to insist on the deployment of military observers in East Timor before the vote. The Council refuses. "It is at this moment that the Secretary General should have directly appealed to public opinion", Shepard Forman, director of the Centre of International Relations on New York University and an expert on East Timor, feels.

Kofi Annan decides no to give in. "If you let yourself be impressed by threats, he says, this will be interpreted by the militias as a sign that it suffices to continue violence for the referendum to be cancelled". Before arresting his decision on the process, he asks again for the advice of the East Timorese leaders. On July 12, the UN director for Asia, Francesc Vendrell, is sent to Jakarta for a long discussion with Xanana Gusmão: "I told him "You understand the situation, so you hold the key, if you feel it is too dangerous to organise the vote, the Secretary General gave me instructions to tell you that he is ready to cancel it, Mr Vendrell explains. I also told him that, under these conditions, CNRT (the National Council of Timorese Resistance) would not be able to organise an electoral campaign". The lack of a campaign does not worry the independence leader. "We don't need to campaign, he tells his interlocutor. The East Timorese know very well what they want." Gusmão recommends to start the registration process for an initial period of ten days.

In Dili, the UN personnel is worried. In an internal memorandum, one volunteer mentions an incident that happened in Maliana: "You must know, he writes the UN mission head, that here, in Maliana, the local police constantly threatens people by telling them that, if they opt for independence, East Timor will become a "new Kosovo"; does the Secretary General know about this situation?"

The final decision of launching the registration process is left to Ian Martin, in charge of the UN mission in East Timor and a former president of Amnesty International. "Of course we knew that the intimidation campaign was orchestrated and organised by the Indonesian army, the Briton explains, and we also knew that tens of thousands of East Timorese had been forcibly displaced. We therefore decided, in consultation with the East Timorese leaders, to start the registration process and to see if displaced people would be prevented to register, in which case we would have cancelled the electoral process". After twenty-four years of repression, East Timor's population was determined to express its will: 98% came to register.

- Friday, July 16, Dili

"That morning, I wondered if the people would come, Cehlia de Lavarenne, in charge of civic voters education for the UN, recalls. The day before, the streets of Dili were empty, the capital was like a ghost town. We were obviously worried to see whether they would dare to come, well they came in their hundreds of thousands. My rôle was to reassure them by telling them that their vote would remain secret, but they did not care, they wanted to tell us that they were going to vote for independence and that they were ready to take any risk for this. . ."

- Wednesday, August 11, Jakarta

Armed with the "unexpected" success of registration and the relative calm in which it took place, Jamsheed Marker and Francesc Vendrell go back to the Indonesian capital. They are reassured by the meeting with President Habibie and General Wiranto: "Our feeling was that they had accepted the fait accompli", Mr Vendrell says. Xanana Gusmão is also comforted. For him, the referendum is now "unaviodable".

Sunday, August 22

The situation in East Timor is constantly getting worse. In a letter addressed to the head of the UN mission, the members of the electoral commission air their worries. The three judges have the mandate to certify that security conditions exist for the referendum. These obviously do not exist: "Eight days before the vote, it is obvious that the Indonesian government refuses to comply to its fundamental obligations". According to the judges, "at no point since the beginning of the electoral process did we see an atmosphere that could be described as free of intimidation and violence". Yet the judges do not recommend to cancel the electoral process.

Initially fixed by the UN to Sunday, August 8, the referendum had to be postponed to August 30, because of the insecurity. During the period from August 22 to 30,the Secretary General works "twenty-four hours a day". His strategy is threefold: to remind the [Indonesian] leaders of their responsibility, to pursue the creation of an international force, to ensure that the Security Council is fully informed of the risks. The under-Secretary General Prendergast proposes the Council to send a high level mission to Jakarta. The Council refuses.

"The militias were convinced that if all civil servants and their families, the Indonesian soldiers and their kin voted against independence and a part of the population gave in to the intimidation not to vote, pro-integration forces could have obtained 52% of the votes", a source back from Dili explains.

Monday, August 30

If fear remained present, the referendum on the future of East Timor nevertheless took place in calm. This Monday, August 30, Cehlia de Lavarenne wakes up at 4 30 am. I did not know what to expect, she explains. What I saw I will never forget: a human tide, men, women, old people, babies, they were all there, dressed as if going to Church, their eyes sparkling, human clusters gripping the gates of the school where I had to help them vote. It was hallucinating. They were so numerous that one was afraid for the more vulnerable. They were in a hurry to vote, they were sure that as soon as they got out of the school they would be killed. They were not afraid to be killed but they were very much afraid to be killed before they had voted. . . I have never seen such a enthousiasm", the French says. 98,6% East Timorese participated the referendum.

Friday, September 3

The Secretary General announces the results of the referendum: 78,5% East Timorese have rejected the offer of autonomy within Indonesia and chosen independence. Washington greets the birth of a "new nation". The Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, salutes a "new democratic legitimacy". In Jakarta, where it is already Saturday, September 4, the Indonesian President states on television that his government "respects and accepts" the results of the referendum. However, Xanana Gusmão is worried. The independence leader, still under house arrest, asks for sending a UN force immediately in order to "avoid a second genocide". He predicts that the Indonesian forces "will force the East Timorese to kill their brothers". He is right. The militias' reaction is immediate. As soon as the results are announced, East Timor is put to fire and the sword. Tens of people are killed. Hundreds of thousands of East Timorese are forced to leave their homes. Humanitarian organisations and foreign journalists are evacuated.

In New York, the Secretary General calls the media. He states that a military presence is now necessary in East Timor. His representative, Mr. Marker, goes to Jakarta and protests vigourously to President Habibie against acts of violence and the "apathy" of the Indonesian police. Mr. Annan demands, in a conversation with the Indonesian president, that the Indonesian armed forces arrest the militias and he informs him of his intent to ask for the deployment of a multinational force.

Mr. Habibie continues to assure the Secretary General that "sending a force is not necessary". The Secretary General spends the night from Friday 3 to Saturday 4 September calling the leaders of great countries: none accepts the deployment of a military force in East Timor without Indonesia's agreement.

Saturday, September 4, New York

Kofi Annan finds an ally only on Seprember 4. The Portuguese Prime Minister feels that the presence of an international military force is now "indispensable". He takes the charge to pass the message on to his Western partners. Mr. Prendergast reiterates his recommendation to send a high-level mission to Jakarta. The Council refuses.

Sunday, September 5, New York

On the Secretary General's request, the Council meets for an emergency session. Mr. Prendergast is unequivocal: "This is a strategy orchestrated by the Indonesian army", the Briton says, a decision from the Council is needed. Short of the deployment of a military force, still "out of the question" for member countries, he insists for the third time on the "immediate" dispatch of a Council mission to Jakarta. The Secretary General obtains Australia's commitment to lead a multinational force. In a 30 minute conversation, Kofi Annan once again conveys his concerns to President Habibie, who announces his intent to declare martial law in East Timor. Mr. Annan answers: "We are ready to give you 24h; if martial law does not calm the situation, a military force will be deployed on the territory to help Indonesia". In this conversation, President Habibie announces his intent to release Xanana Gusmão and to handle him to Unamet. The offer is rejected by Kofi Annan, who has no means to ensure the safety of the independence leader.

Monday, September 6, Dili

The streets in Dili are once again deserted. The militias are on rampage. The Indonesian forces, responsible for the territory, amount to more than 20,000 men. Dozens of civilians have already been killed. Forced displacement of the population continues. According to the UN, more than 150,000 people have been displaced by force. The militias attack the residency of Mgr Carlos Belo, the Bishop of Dili (sic), Peace Nobel Prize, and the headquarters of the Red Cross where several thousands of civilians had taken refuge. According to UN telephone records, the Secretary General gave between September 3 and 15 111 phone calls concerning East Timor, among which 25 with President Habibie. On September 6, Kofi Annan accepts a request from President Habibie to wait for another 24h for martial law to reestablish calm, otherwise "Indonesia will have no excuse to reject the International Force".

Tuesday, September 7

The Security Council finally accepts the idea of a diplomatic mission to East Timor. Five ambassadors volunteer. The mission is composed of the ambassadors from Britain, Malaysia, Slovenia, the Dutch number-two and is headed by the ambassador of Namibia.

Wednesday, September 8

In a telephone conversation with President Habibie, from 3 25 am to 4 30 am (New York time), the Secretary General informs him that martial law remains inefficient. He also informs him of his decision to evacuate UN personnel. Mr. Habibie asks for another 24h. Kofi Annan goes back to the Security Council. He demands the "immediate" deployment of the Multinational Force. Short of Jakarta's agreement, the member countries refuse. Kofi Annan addresses the press: "Indonnesia refuses to end the violence, we cannot accept this situation, a military force must be deployed". The Council asks the Secretary General to give Indonesia 24 more hours, but accepts, for the first time, to take a tougher line against Jakarta. In spite of the more and more pressing recommendations from Ian Martin, the head of the UN mission in East Timor, to evacuate his personnel surrounded by militias, the Secretary General hesitates. He is disturbed at the idea to abandon the population he had encouraged to vote. In Washington, President Clinton talks of "serious human rights violations" and takes measures to isolate Indonesia. The IMF announces its decision to suspend loans of several billion US dollars to Jakarta.

Thursday, September 9, Jakarta

The five ambassadors in the mission are sitting in front of President Habibie surrounded by his cabinet. The head of State explains that the situation in East Timor is "under control" of the government which fulfills its obligations. The army commander reiterates his position: a foreign military presence is out of the question. The ambassadors are not convinced. They mention the incidents in the last two days.

Friday, September 10, Indonesian Defence Ministry

Flanked by his generals, General Wiranto, who does not really master the Kopassus elite troops which organised the recruitment and training of militias at the beginning of this year, is calm. He tells the ambassadors his version of the events in East Timor. The Namibian ambassador, Martin Andjaba, rejects Wiranto's comments: "You are not saying the truth. We insist to go to East Timor and to see what happens there by ourselves." "General Wiranto was obviously surprised, the British ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock remembers, to hear such a direct language from a former SWAPO revolutionary (the independence movement of Namibia)". He gets calm again: "This is not necessary, he says. I can assure you that East Timor is quiet, the informations are exaggerated." Just as the general is speaking, the mobile phone of the Council's mission head rings: it is Ian Martin. The UN headquarters have been grenade attacked, the Unamet's head says. The Namibian ambassador conveys his conversation to General Wiranto. The head of the Indonesian army asks his aides to verify the information. These incidents are not serious, he insists. The soldiers are protecting the UN headquarters. . . The telephone of the Namibian ambassador rings again: the attacks are more and more serious, Ian Martin says again. "General Wiranto had no more choice, the British ambassador tells us. He accepts the idea of a visit to Dili."

Friday, September 10, New York

East Timor is more and more victim of a systematic scorched earth policy. Frustrated by his powerlessness to politically influence the events in the territory and by his incapacity to force the big powers to increase their pressure on Jakarta, also aware of the serious damage to UN credibility, Kofi Annan sends a warning to the Indonesian authorities. He urges them to accept an international military presence and warns them that by refusing, they "cannot escape the responsibility of what would amount to "war crimes" (sic, he also said "crimes against humanity")".

Saturday, September 11, New York

After a four days negociation, António Monteiro obtains a public meeting of the Security Council: "The member countries had to explain their positions, he said. Why did they decide to launch a military operation in Kosovo without Belgrade's authorisation, while the East Timorese are massacred and expelled from home, and the international community waits for Jakarta's agreement before reacting." The meeting reveals a change of atmosphere. Public opinion now demands explanations. The Secretary General states that Indonesia "has clearly failed to live up to its commitments, in spite of the introduction of martial law; the time has come for the deployment of an international force". He announces that Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Malaysia are ready to participate such a force.

Saturday, September 11, Dili

Accompanied by General Wiranto, the five Council ambassadors arrive in Dili. Journalists have come with them. For the first time, televisions testify of the destructions in the East Timorese capital. "The visit to Dili was crucial, the British ambassador explains. We could see the extent of destructions with our own eyes." As for General Wiranto, "he was obviously shaken to see that one had perhaps not told him the whole truth. He realised that now, these images could be seen by the whole world thanks to CNN and the BBC. He knew that he could not deny anything anymore". It is in Dili that the general decides to "recommend" the deployment of the international force. "It is really General Wiranto who took the decision, another diplomat, present that day in Dili, explains, but he did not want to announce it himself. He was not crazy, he wanted to keep power without being held responsible for a foreign presence on Indonesian soil." The general takes his phone and asks President Habibie to announce Indonesia's decision.

Sunday, September 12, Dili

The Indonesian president announces "his" decision to accept the deployment of the multinational force. He receives the Council's mission which is back to Jakarta. "President Habibie explained us that he had announced his decision before receiving us, the British ambassador explains. He told us that he did not want to give the impression to his own cabinet that this decision had been taken under the Security Council's pressure." It is decided that the Foreign Minister Ali Alatas will go to New York to finalise the deployment of the multinational Force.

Wednesday, September 15, New York

Late in the night from Wednesday to Thursday, the Security Council gives the green light to the deployment of a multinational Force under Australian command.

As early as the day after the vote, the UN finds itself under fire.

The Organisation and particularly its Secretary General are accused by commentors to have failed in their responsibilities towards the East Timorese population. Within the UN personnel, some share these critics: "Jamsheed Marker and Ian Martin should be judged, one of them feels. It is not enough to say that the civilian population wanted to vote at all costs. Of course it wanted to vote, but it counted on the UN and the UN has betrayed it."

"It is easy to criticise the UN afterwards, Kofi Annan says. I repeat that in East Timor, the choice was between a referendum that could be violent and abandoning the negociations. The East Timorese did not want to lose the opportunity, perhaps the last one, to choose their own destiny. By mentioning the possibility of independence for East Timor, President Habibie had taken a risk, what if he is not reelected?" This risk, added to the Bank Bali scandal, revealing the regime's corruption, perhaps costed Mr. Habibie his reelection. His successor, Abdurrahman Wahid, and the Vice-President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, were against independence of the occupied territory.

The new UN administrator for East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, does not mince words: "We are perhaps guilty to have trusted men like B. J. Habibie and Ali Alatas and not to have been able to imagine the Dantesque scenario that followed the announcement of the results, but no one could foresee the extent of the violence. Should we have cancelled the elections? With what consequences?" The Brazilian diplomat stresses that, when the international community "finally" decided to authorise a military force to East Timor, this was done "with unprecedented speed and the Secretary General had already prepared the ground". The best defence of the UN Secretary General perhaps comes from Xanana Gusmão who was unambiguous on the handling of the East Timorese question when he passed to New York, Tuesday, September 28: "I am sorry, even shocked that the Secretary General is the target of critics. I want to say firmly that we supported him in his courageous decisions that nobody else would have dared to take. There were risks, we knew it, but we were determined to take them, in order to be able, after three centuries of Portuguese colonisation and a quarter century Indonesian occupation, to determine our own fate. There was no other way than that taken by the UN Secretary General, and the East Timorese people is grateful to him. . ."

Translated by Bruno Kahn


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