Subject: JP: Making Amends in Timor Leste

The Jakarta Post Monday, Jan. 30, 2006

Making Amends in Timor Leste

By Joseph Nevins

The logic of reparations for war-related crimes has a long history. It has become especially powerful in the aftermath of the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust as a way to address both past and associated present-day injustices. Such thinking led the United Nations Security Council to impose a $52 billion reparations bill on Saddam Hussein's government in 1991 following its illegal invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Like reasoning should now lead the international community to require something similar of Indonesia and its overseas patrons for their collective crimes in East Timor.

This is the effective demand of an official East Timorese commission of inquiry's report handed over to the United Nations last Friday. The approximately 2,500-page document provides chilling detail of many of the worst atrocities committed during Jakarta's reign of terror in the former Portuguese colony. But most explosive is the truth commission's recommendation that Indonesia and its Western backers provide reparations for their roles in the country's plight.

It was thirty years ago this past December that Indonesia's military launched a full-scale invasion of East Timor. The war and subsequent occupation resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, widespread rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls, and systematic destruction of the territory's buildings and infrastructure in the waning days of Jakarta's presence. Today, independent East Timor is one of the world's poorest countries.

The Western powers greatly enabled Indonesia's crimes in East Timor. Indeed, their collective assistance was decisive in allowing the 1975 invasion to go forth and for the occupation to continue until late-1999.

Declassified government documents reveal that Jakarta was sufficiently worried about how the Western countries it depended upon would react to its aggression that Soeharto, Indonesia's dictator, vetoed earlier plans to invade East Timor. Only after consulting Australia and Britain, both of which made clear that they would not oppose the assault, and, most important, receiving the green light from the United States the day prior to the invasion, did Soeharto launch an all-out attack.

Over the almost-24 years of brutality that followed, the three Western governments and many allies--including Japan, France, and Canada--together provided invaluable diplomatic cover and many billions of dollars worth of weapons, military equipment and training, and economic aid to Jakarta.

Despite the atrocities and the resulting hardships in East Timor, neither Indonesia nor its Western accomplices have apologized for their actions, never mind make amends. Iraq, however, has paid almost $20 billion--mostly to Kuwait's state oil company and government--and, shockingly, continues to pay despite the end of Saddam's government.

Irrespective of the merits of forcing the Iraqi people to pay for the crimes of a dictatorial regime--especially one long backed by Washington and London until the Kuwait invasion--the U.N. reparations set an important precedent, one not easily ignored.

While wealthy Western countries could easily afford to provide compensation, any reparations regime applied to Jakarta should avoid the many pitfalls of that imposed on Iraq so it does not hurt the Indonesian majority. Instead, it could require that Soeharto, now living in comfortable retirement, turn over to East Timor some of his billions of dollars in ill-gotten fortune. Similarly, rich Indonesian generals and businesses that effectively stole much of East Timor's wealth could be compelled to provide restitution.

No less than President George W. Bush has articulated the need to hold accountable direct perpetrators of gross crimes, as well as those complicit in them. Speaking to Congress nine days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Bush held the Afghan government co-responsible for the terror: "By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is committing murder," he argued. Fortunately, unlike in the case of Al Qaeda, no one is advocating military attacks against those responsible for the crimes committed in East Timor, only that they acknowledge their sins and pay reparations to a tiny country that they devastated.

Regardless of the demand's pragmatism, it is important to make for ethical reasons. And to the extent the demand is met, it would provide critical long-term resources to help the East Timorese eliminate the pervasive and profound poverty that now afflicts their country.

It would also strengthen global accountability mechanisms, and possibly make future would-be perpetrators of atrocities and their partners-in-crime think twice before they act.


Joseph Nevins is an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College, and the author of A Not-so-distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (Cornell University Press, 2005). He can be reached at

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