Petition to the United Nations Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples from the East Timor Action Network / United States

Presented by Erik Gustafson

United Nations, New York, June 30, 1998

Mr. Chairperson, distinguished members of the committee and guests, my name is Erik Gustafson, and I am speaking for the East Timor Action Network, a 7-year old grassroots movement with more than 7,500 members and 20 local groups across the United States. ETAN has petitioned this committee every year since 1992.

Mr. Chairman, this year is different. By nonviolently overthrowing the Suharto dictatorship, the people of Indonesia and East Timor have begun to create democratic space which will make it possible to resolve the “question of East Timor.” But the transition will be difficult, fraught with risks, casualties and potentially disastrous outcomes.

The United Nations, especially this Special Committee, has the responsibility to safeguard the rights of people of non-self-governing territories. The people of East Timor need your protection now, perhaps more than in many years. Their future could be decided in the next few months.

For centuries, the Portuguese colonial empire denied East Timor its right to self-determination. More recently, Indonesia’s military might has suppressed that right for the last 22 years. During that time, this Committee watched helplessly, unable to carry out its responsibility to implement the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

As you must know, that Declaration states that “immediate steps shall be taken … to transfer all powers to the people of those territories (who have not yet attained independence), without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire.” Countries which obstruct that process, by force of arms and other repressive measures, violate the Declaration, the Charter of the United Nations, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and numerous other laws.

East Timor is a major blot on the record of the United Nations. The Indonesian military occupation persists in defiance of two resolutions by the Security Council and eight by the General Assembly, outlasting uncountable rounds of discussions under at least four Secretaries-General. As recently as last week, Indonesian soldiers are still shooting down East Timorese civilians when they express their desire for self-determination.

Acting President Habibie, without popular mandate, will probably be out of office in the near future. Yet even he understands that the occupation is a problem for Indonesia as well as for the people of East Timor. Unlike his predecessor and mentor, he would like to placate international legal and political concerns. But he refuses to discuss the fundamental issue.

After initially stating that there would be no change regarding Jakarta’s claim that the illegally annexed territory is a province of Indonesia, Habibie backtracked and said he would consider granting a “special status” of autonomy to East Timor. He released a few of the several hundred East Timorese being held in Indonesian jails, military bases and police stations, and proposed to release East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmão if the world community would accept Indonesian domination over East Timor.

The East Timor Action Network welcomes Habibie’s actions as signals that the Habibie government may be more flexible than its 32-year predecessor. But they are only signals, with no intrinsic significance.

Simultaneously, the military which backs Habibie is sending different signals. Beginning with the violent suppression a peaceful East Timorese student demonstration in Jakarta on June 12, the last few weeks have seen a return to business as usual in East Timor – military repression and violence against civilians. The “Dili Spring” when East Timorese people could finally express their hunger for self-determination with less fear (albeit still with great courage) lasted less than 22 days. The people of East Timor have waited more than 22 years for the self-determination guaranteed by the Declaration which created this Special Committee, but they will have to wait even longer.

East Timor’s political status is for the East Timorese alone to decide; they have an inalienable right to self-determination. This right cannot be taken away by Indonesian military invasion; it cannot be usurped by the unelected protégé of Indonesia’s ousted dictator; and it cannot be negotiated away by Portugal, the U.N. Secretariat, or East Timorese individuals.

The “autonomy” that Habibie offers is a smokescreen. Parts of Indonesia with such status are still ruled from Jakarta. In the “special autonomous region” of Aceh, human rights are violated even more often than in other parts of Indonesia. There is no reason to expect that East Timor, which has been ruled by brutal force since the 1975 invasion, would receive different treatment under “autonomy.”

The East Timorese people will eventually vote on their political future, under international supervision. They could choose to be a province of a democratic Indonesia, or they might choose total independence or some other option. The election should be preceded by a troop withdrawal and more local self-government for the people of East Timor. If acting President Habibie chooses to call this interregnum “autonomy” he may – recognizing that it is only a brief transition to allow the terror of the occupation to dissipate so that a referendum can be held without fear.

Over the past few weeks, massive spontaneous public meetings and protests in East Timor have shown that most people there are eager to exercise their political rights. As this became obvious, the occupying government staged rallies in support of integration -- coerced and dishonest events which provoked violent confrontations and prevented the European Union delegation from freely meeting with East Timorese people. The United Nations and its Member States, through this Committee and otherwise, must condemn these activities in the strongest terms.

Mr. Chairman, Xanana Gusmão remains in a Jakarta jail despite calls for his release from the U.N. Secretary General, many members of the U.S. Congress, and most Indonesian democratic leaders and movements. He should be freed immediately so that he and the Indonesian government, together with the United Nations and Portugal, can negotiate the specifics of East Timor’s referendum on self-determination. Ending his illegal imprisonment is not a “bargaining chip” that can be traded for the inalienable rights of the East Timorese people; but it is morally imperative and pragmatically necessary to move the peace process forward.

The changes in government in Jakarta which have already occurred, and those which will take place over the coming months, offer new possibilities. The increased openness of public discussion is helping Indonesian citizens understand the crimes that have been committed in their names in East Timor. But for the people of East Timor, meaningful change has not yet begun. The United Nations has a special responsibility at this critical time to help East Timor – and Indonesia – evolve from genocide to freedom.

For the last nine months, Indonesia has suffered a massive economic crisis which continues to worsen. This disaster, partly induced by Western investors and institutions, has been portrayed as a consequence of the “prosperity” brought by years of Suharto autocracy. Our hearts go out to the Indonesian people who are enduring poverty, scapegoating, unemployment and individual and structural violence. We urge the international community, including the IMF, to examine their roles in exacerbating the suffering of poor Indonesians.

The people of East Timor are the most affected, with even more severe famine and shortages than in other areas controlled by the Indonesian government. It is a travesty that the East Timorese, who never chose to be part of Indonesia and received none of the benefits of Suharto-era prosperity, are hit the hardest once again.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to update this Committee on developments in the United States relating to East Timor. Since we met last summer, my government has moved closer to supporting self-determination. Last November, Congress passed and President Clinton signed a new law. In any sale of lethal equipment from the United States to Indonesia, the contract must state “that the United States expects that the items will not be used in East Timor.” That expectation, which means that the U.S. regards Indonesia as obligated to refrain from using such weapons in East Timor, is the first time since 1975 that a U.S. statute has singled out East Timor as distinct from Indonesia.

Legislation currently pending in the Senate and the House of Representatives will directly reaffirm East Timor’s right to a referendum on self-determination. These resolutions have dozens of sponsors, from both political parties, and will come up for passage in the next few months.

Last March, Washington was scandalized when it was revealed that U.S. Marines and Green Berets have been travelling to Indonesia every month or two to train Indonesian soldiers in Urban Warfare, Psychological Operations, Advanced Sniper Techniques, and similar tools of repression. The bulk of the training has been given to Kopassus, the notorious special forces responsible for torture and terror in East Timor. Congress thought they had barred such training since the 1991 Dili massacre, but the Pentagon has been evading their intent. Pending legislation will prohibit this program, and the public outcry has already forced the Pentagon to suspend it.

Another bill, introduced days before Suharto resigned, will terminate all military shipments from the United States to Indonesia, including ammunition and spare parts. The “Indonesia Human Rights Before Military Assistance Act” would only allow deliveries to resume after a democratically-elected government has taken power in Indonesia and there have been substantial improvement in human rights in East Timor, Indonesia and Irian Jaya.

As in Jakarta, policy-makers in Washington can see that the wind is blowing toward freedom and democracy in Indonesia. That wind can push East Timor’s sails toward self-determination. The United Nations, and especially this Committee, is the keel which can keep East Timor’s ship on course, allowing the Timorese people to sail in their chosen direction. Without a keel to stabilize their journey, they will continue to be lost on the stormy seas of repression and occupation, and never reach safe harbor.

The people of East Timor have not abandoned the hope expressed in the lofty language that gave rise to this Special Committee. Neither has the East Timor Action Network. We only hope that our faith in this Committee proves well-founded during this critical period.

Thank you.

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