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see also Background on East Timor and U.S. Policy (May 2000)

Background on East Timor and U.S. Policy
April 1998

The Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor is one of the worst atrocities of this century. The occupation has claimed the lives of over 200,000 Timorese,* one-third of the original population. It continues in defiance of the UN Security Council, which has twice called on Jakarta to withdraw "without delay," and eight General Assembly Resolutions. It has been maintained with help from the United States.

In 1975, Indonesia launched its invasion hours after President Ford and Henry Kissinger met with Indonesian dictator Suharto in Jakarta. The US then doubled military aid to Indonesia, blocked the United Nations from taking effective enforcement action, and continued to sell new weapons, particularly helicopters for the next two decades. Since 1975, the United States has sold more than $1.1 billion worth of weaponry to Indonesia.

The human rights situation remains serious in East Timor and Indonesia itself. The 1997 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices confirms that Indonesia’s armed forces continue to carry out torture, extra-judicial executions (including in police custody) and other severe human rights violations, including the detention and imprisonment of East Timorese for the expression of their political views. During half of 1997, reliable reports document at least 771 arrests and 52 killings in East Timor.

On November 12, 1991 in Dili, at the Santa Cruz Cemetery, Indonesian troops armed with American-made M-16 rifles gunned down more than 270 Timorese civilians. Since then, a bipartisan effort in Congress and an increasing grassroots movement have set out to reverse our government’s mistaken course. After the massacre, 52 Senators wrote to President Bush, calling for active US support for the implementation of the UN resolutions on East Timor "with an eye toward a political solution that might end the needless suffering in East Timor and bring about true self-determination for the territory." It was the first of many bipartisan House and Senate letters affirming support for East Timor’s self-determination.

Since then, Congress has repeatedly acted on several fronts to encourage resolution of East Timor’s political status and to protect the human rights of people living there. These actions have had some effect in East Timor and Indonesia, but the fundamental denial of human and political rights persists.

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Military Training

In October 1992, after several statements by Indonesian officials indicating that the massacre was an act of policy,** Congress cut off Indonesia’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) aid. The cutoff was opposed by the Bush Administration’s State Department, the Pentagon, lobbyists for the Indonesian military and some US corporations, but was signed into law as part of the FY1993 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act.

This legislation was re-enacted for FY1994 and FY 1995. In the FY1995 bill, the House of Representatives renewed the ban on IMET and tried to close a loophole under which Indonesia had been allowed to purchase some of the same training. The committee report accompanying the bill expressed "outrage" that the administration "despite its vocal embrace of human rights" allowed the purchase of training.

In 1995, Congress continued to ban IMET (for FY1996) on military subjects and made it clear that it does not accept the human rights conduct of Indonesia’s military. However, some IMET -- the "expanded" version (E-IMET) which purports to focus on human rights and civilian control of the military – was allowed. But the House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee received administration testimony in March 1997 that the US sold Indonesia military training without Congressional notification or consent throughout 1996, despite Congress limiting assistance to non-military training in its 1996 authorization.

In June 1997, Indonesian ruler Suharto wrote to President Clinton rejecting E-IMET and a proposed weapons sale. Suharto stated that he would not accept restrictions on military transfers based on human rights. Nevertheless, Congress has limited appropriations to E-IMET only for FY 1997 and 1998.

In March 1998, Rep. Lane Evans (D-IL) and ETAN released Pentagon documents showing that U.S. Army and Marine personnel have conducted training sessions in Indonesia under the JCET program every few months since 1992. In violation of the spirit of the IMET training ban, Green Berets and other US soldiers continue to train Indonesian Kopassus (Special Forces) and other forces in sniper tactics, urban warfare, explosives, psychological operations, and other techniques for repressing the Indonesian and East Timorese populations. Kopassus troops have been implicated in some of the worst atrocities in East Timor, as well as in crowd control tactics in Indonesia.

Although the JCET training is technically legal, many in Congress are angry that the Defense Department has evaded the clear intention of the IMET prohibition and confused the message that Congress intended to send to the Indonesian military by placing limits on military training. The International Military Training Accountability Act, shortly to be introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and others, would close this loophole by barring all military defense services and training to countries, which have been barred from receiving IMET training. Countries, which receive E-IMET, would only be allowed to receive other defense services and training consistent with E-IMET’s stated purposes.

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United Nations

In March 1993, under pressure from Congress, the State Department reversed its pro-Jakarta stand and co-sponsored a successful resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission criticizing Indonesian abuses in East Timor.

In February 1995, a bi-partisan group of nine Senators urged President Clinton to support a resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission calling for steps to improve human rights in East Timor. They wrote "We believe that the US relationship with Indonesia should enable us to effectively press our concerns with the Jakarta government." Members of the House Human Rights Caucus sent a similar letter, expressing concern about "the lack of progress on human rights and the perpetual reports of torture and other serious abuses."

At the beginning of 1997, Kofi Annan became Secretary General of the United Nations. He created the position of Special UN Envoy to East Timor and appointed Pakistani diplomat Jamsheed Marker, who then visited East Timor. When Timorese students attempted to meet with Marker at his hotel, Indonesian security forces beat dozens of students and arrested dozens more when the group was violently dispersed.

In April 1997, the UN Human Rights Commission passed a strong resolution on East Timor which was co-sponsored by the US.

In April 1998, the U.S. cosponsored a similar resolution, but it was replaced by a Chairman’s statement which Indonesia negotiated with the European Community. Indonesia agreed to allow the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit East Timor, and to allow access to the disputed territory by Jakarta-based UN personnel. In the past, Indonesia has failed to follow through on similar commitments.

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Weapons Sales

In July 1993, again under Congressional pressure, the State Department blocked a transfer of US F-5 fighter planes from the government of Jordan to Indonesia, citing human rights as one of the reasons. The Jakarta Post editorialized that the blockage of the F-5 deal "resounded like [a] sonic boom" in Indonesia.

In September 1993, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously adopted an amendment by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) to condition major arms sales to Indonesia on human rights improvements in East Timor. The amendment was a compromise version worked out after extensive negotiation with the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. The Feingold amendment sent political shock waves through Jakarta, though the authorization bill to which it was attached never reached the Senate floor.

Early in 1994, in the wake of the Feingold amendment, the State Department imposed a ban on the sale of small and light arms and riot control equipment to Indonesia. The ban presented the first occasion in which an across-the-board prohibition had been imposed on any type of weapons sale to Indonesia. The small arms ban set an important precedent of tacit acceptance on the part of the State Department of the principle that withholding weapons sales can advance human rights.

Since the 1991 massacre, the State Department has licensed more than 300 military sales to Indonesia. The items sold have ranged from machine guns and M-16s to electronic components, from communications gear to spare parts for attack planes. Every shipment has sent the political message that the Indonesian armed forces in their illegal occupation of East Timor still enjoy active US government support. The US should end those sales completely, and inform the UN Secretary General that it is now willing to support enforcement of the Security Council resolutions. This would mean supporting the call of Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, for a UN-supervised referendum in which the Timorese would freely choose their own political status.

In July 1994, the Senate passed a prohibition on the sale of small arms. The proposed provision in effect restated the US- Indonesia treaty signed in 1958 which restricts the use of US-supplied weapons to "legitimate self-defense" and strictly forbids their use for "an act of aggression." The appropriations bill, as signed into law, continued the IMET ban and prohibited small arms sales to Indonesia.

The FY1996 State Department reorganization bill as passed by Congress would have extended the small arms ban to include helicopter-mounted equipment until the Secretary of State certifies significant progress on human rights in East Timor, including troop reductions and more local political control. Although the overall bill was vetoed for unrelated reasons, the State Department agreed to extend the ban. In July 1996, State expanded the ban further to include armored personnel carriers. Although this move was taken to avert a stronger ban, Assistant Secretary Barbara Larkin wrote that "we all agree [that these arms] should not be sold or transferred to Indonesia until there is significant improvement in the human rights situation there." At his confirmation hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth confirmed that the ban, including helicopter-mounted weaponry and armored vehicles, will remain in effect.

In November 1996, International Relations Committee Chair Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) wrote the Washington Post opposing the Administration’s proposal to sell nine F-16 fighter planes to Indonesia. The sale was repeatedly postponed due to Congressional and grassroots pressure until, in June 1997, Suharto wrote Clinton rejecting the F-16s and all IMET and E-IMET training.

The House version of the 1998 State Department Authorization bill included three provisions on East Timor, including a restriction on US government weapons sales and military assistance to Indonesia pending substantial improvements in human rights. After the House passed this bill, this language was attacked in Jakarta, but the overall bill failed to become law.

In November 1997, Congress passed and the President signed the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act for FY 1998. The law requires the US government to state in arms sales contracts to Indonesia that the U.S. "expects" that any lethal weapons or helicopters will not be used in East Timor. It is a milestone because it reaffirms international law that East Timor is distinct from Indonesia, in contrast with the Suharto regime’s claims. Many expect that this law will indefinitely prevent US weapons sales to Indonesia. This law also renews the ban on IMET training, calls for an envoy in East Timor, and encourages the administration to support international efforts to find a just solution.

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Self-Determination for East Timor

Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), on the final international trip of his distinguished Senate career, visited East Timor in May 1996. He reported to Chairman Helms: "When asked how a plebiscite on the issue of independence versus integration would turn out, I was told that over 90% of the people would choose independence and that number would include some who formerly supported integration."

Fifteen Senators, led by Russell Feingold (D-WI), sent a letter to President Clinton in November 1996:"We believe now is the time for the United States to take a leading role in advocating for the right of the East Timorese to choose their own government through a UN-sponsored referendum." Clinton replied: "I note with interest your support of a UN-sponsored self-determination referendum in East Timor. I will take your idea into consideration."

In March 1998, International Relations Chair Benjamin Gilman wrote Secretary Albright urging the U.S. government to clarify its position on East Timor’s political status. Gilman urged the Secretary to support the U.N. Secretary-General’s efforts to find a just and comprehensive solution to East Timor by adopting as policy that "the U.S. does not regard the incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia as irreversible."

Earlier this month, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), together with John Porter (R-IL), Tom Lantos (D-CA), and Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced H.Con.Res. 258, which supports an internationally-supervised referendum to determine the political status of East Timor, and calls for direct Timorese participation in UN negotiations. Many other Representatives are co-sponsoring this resolution, and a Senate companion will be introduced shortly.

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The Clinton Administration

During his first presidential campaign candidate Bill Clinton said that the US approach to East Timor has been "unconscionable." In September 1993, at a press conference, President Clinton turned aside the argument that pressuring Indonesia on East Timor and human rights would have an adverse impact on business. He said, "The United States does have a very strong position on human rights, and I think we should... (b)ut that has not undermined our... commercial relationships... with countries that we think are making an honest effort to shoot straight with us and to work with us... We have questions about the issues of East Timor... but we have had good contact with Indonesia." The relationship of US corporations in Indonesia engaged in many lines of business with Jakarta is one of mutual profit, a basic fact unaffected by Timor policy.

In October 1995, legislators from both houses and both parties wrote President Clinton prior to his meeting with Suharto. The Senate letter stated, "Violence in the territory has been on the increase as well, especially since the APEC Summit in Jakarta last November... [D]uring the Summit protestors were detained and, by most accounts, tortured at the hands of Indonesian soldiers. Other reports of deaths of protestors at the hands of the Indonesian soldiers have continued all year."

In June 1997, President Clinton dropped in on a Washington meeting between Nobel Prize winning East Timorese Bishop Carlos Belo and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger. In late November, Clinton met with Suharto at the APEC summit in Vancouver. As he has in every bilateral meeting since taking office, President Clinton raised the issues of human rights and the treatment of people in East Timor.

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Other developments

In a report released in December 1994, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, noted "... the conditions that allowed the (1991) Santa Cruz killings to occur are still present. In particular, the members of the security forces responsible for the abuses have not been held accountable and continue to enjoy virtual impunity." In March, 1996, after a visit to East Timor, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights José Ayala-Lasso cited allegations of "very grave" human rights violations.

During 1996 and 1997, several U.S officials visited East Timor, including Congressmen Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), an Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck. Other officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth, have met with East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmão in his Indonesian prison cell.

Increasing numbers of East Timorese are taking ever greater personal risks to speak out against the occupation. Demonstrations, letters and speeches are organized with growing frequency. The consequences for these actions remain severe. Since mid-1995, hundreds of young East Timorese have attempted to escape by gaining asylum in foreign embassies in Jakarta to escape persecution or death. But many believe that the time for real change is now, given the confluence of circumstances exposing East Timor’s struggle to the international community—the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Carlos Belo and CNRM diplomat José Ramos-Horta, the increasing unrest and growing democracy movement in Indonesia itself, and the publicity surrounding the Clinton administration’s campaign donations from the Indonesian Lippo-Riady Group.

In May 1996 the Indonesian government held elections (widely considered to be completely fraudulent, severely criticized by the US State Department) around which military violence and repression escalated severely. East Timorese guerilla commander David Alex was captured and killed under suspicious circumstances suggesting torture. 40,000 Indonesian troops have been deployed to East Timor. According to documented reports, at least 52 Timorese were killed and 771 were arbitrarily arrested during 1997. Many are still being detained without access to family, lawyers or human rights organizations.

Yet, during this same period, three rounds of talks on East Timor between Indonesian and Portuguese representatives have taken place and the Intra-Timorese Dialogue has resumed, both under UN auspices. Nelson Mandela has entered the mediation process, meeting with Suharto, Xanana Gusmão, José Ramos-Horta, Bishop Belo, and Portuguese representatives between June and November 1997.

The Indonesian economic and political crisis in 1997-1998 has heightened American attention to that country. Although the outcome of the IMF appropriations remains uncertain, many in Congress have expressed concern about unqualified U.S. support for the Suharto regime, and have urged that human and political rights considerations, as well as economic ones, be attached to any bailout. On April 2, 1998, 27 representatives from both parties wrote President Clinton expressing their "disappointment that American policy has been so tolerant of the pattern of blatant disregard for fundamental human rights that has marked the Suharto government in Indonesia." They "strongly urge an immediate re-evaluation of American policy towards Indonesia, and a clear statement that the United States will hold the Indonesian government to minimum standards of decent treatment of its own people and the people of East Timor before allowing it to become the beneficiary of billions of dollars in international assistance."

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The current situation

Last year, Bishop Belo stated that "it would be a mistake to conclude that the human rights environment in East Timor was improving." Recent reports by reliable human rights observers, including the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission reported many hundreds of human rights violations during 1997.

For the last eight months, Indonesia has undergone several wide-scale catastrophes—economic collapse, massive human-caused forest fires, and, in East Timor, West Irian and eastern Indonesia, drought. These disasters have caused severe hunger and threaten imminent famine. As the poorest area under Indonesian control, East Timor has suffered the most severe hardships. Although the U.S. government provided some emergency food aid for East Timor in January, the situation remains dire.

While the IMF and the US consider a multi-billion-dollar bailout for Suharto-family and multinational business interests, the human rights situation in East Timor continues to worsen. Human Rights Watch/Asia recently reported that "tensions have escalated steadily in recent years as the army has tried to ‘Timorize’ the security forces."

The political issue in East Timor is a very basic one: the people simply want, and are legally, morally and politically entitled to, the right to vote in a UN-supervised referendum, to choose their own political status. It is hard to imagine permanent qualitative improvement in human rights until that issue is solved.

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East Timor Action Network/U.S.

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