Subject: ABC: Miracle intervention

Feb. 7 2002

Miracle intervention

Why did Indonesia allow an international force into East Timor in 1999? The man behind the UN response explains.

In September 1999, the people of East Timor voted overwhemingly to separate from Indonesia.

Peter van Walsum was President of the Security Council at the time, so when military-backed militia violence erupted across the territory, it was up to him to craft a coherent response.

Now retired, the Dutch diplomat says it was a miracle that Indonesia agreed to allow an international force into the territory.

In part, he says, Indonesia relented for fear that the international community might intervene, even without the approval of the Security Council, as it had done recently in Kosovo.

Asia Pacific's Peter Mares spoke with Peter van Walsum during the recent Mediating Human Rights and Democracy conference Mediating Human Rights and Democracy at Curtin University of Technology in Perth.


VAN WALSUM: You shouldn't underestimate the fact that the lines were not as clearly drawn as they often are in these cases.

Especially the Portuguese speaking developing countries such as Angola and Mozambique have made it clear that they felt that East Timor should be allowed to affect its own right of self-determination, that it was not part of Indonesia.

And so several developing countries at the time were inclined to see the situation almost in such a light as though Indonesia was the imperialist power.

MARES: So the idea was to pressure Indonesia to allow an international force in?

VAN WALSUM: Well it was quite clear from the start that Indonesia was perhaps unwilling but probably even unable to stop the violence and there was also a general feeling that if Indonesia didn't do so that the international community had to do so.

I would say there was a general agreement to that effect on the Security Council but where the opinions diverged was under what circumstances is that going to happen.

Two major powers, two permanent members, Russia and China made it very clear that they would not consider giving the green light for any intervention unless it was in agreement with the Indonesian government, so we didn't waste much time on looking at other avenues. We started to focus on putting pressure on Indonesia right away.

MARES: And so China and Russia backed that idea of pressuring for international role in East Timor because they didn't want it to happen outside the UN or without the UN Security Council's backing?

VAN WALSUM: Yes Russia and China have been violently opposed to the Kosovo intervention, they did not want something like that to happen again because they felt that it would undermine the prestige of the council even further, (and) that of the permanent members.

Now, normally speaking, permanent members are in a position to stop this sort of nonsense. So, if people start to do things outside the Security Council - this is a Russian and Chinese way of looking at it - then that is the end of their blocking power as veto wielding members. So they were willing to put pressure on Indonesia for their own reasons.

MARES: Do you think it was ever conceivable that the international community would have acted in East Timor without Indonesia's invitation to intervene?

VAN WALSUM: I'm still not quite sure. If you ask yourself what would have happened if Indonesia had not allowed the international community to restore order but had been only able to do so itself, I find it hard to believe that we would have simply looked the other way.

But basically at that time I felt it was very, very unlikely that there would be another intervention without a Security Council mandate, also because Australia made it clear that they didn't think in those terms.

MARES: That is, Australia wouldn't intervene unless Indonesia sanctioned that intervention.

VAN WALSUM: Yes but what was very useful at the time was that nothing was entirely clear because on the one hand people felt that we should not have another Kosovo, but on the other hand everybody knew that we had had Kosovo and that humanitarian intervention without a Security Council mandate is any case not unthinkable.

I personally must admit that I tried to stimulate that uncertainty a little bit because I felt it was a useful part of the pressure, but I don't think I ever thought it would be possible. But I do have a feeling that Indonesia thought of that contingency in any case.

MARES: One criticism of the international intervention in East Timor is that it took too long; it took too long to convince Indonesia to allow an international force in to restore order and take over from the Indonesian security forces.

VAN WALSUM: Well I would like to say two things: first it's a miracle that it happened at all, that Indonesia gave in, and secondly by UN standards I think it was sort of the fastest quickest actions that we've ever seen.

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