On May 5, 1999 Indonesia and Portugal signed an agreement for the United Nations to conduct a "popular consultation" on "special autonomy" for East Timor in August, 1999. If the ballot is a free and fair reflection of the wishes of the people of East Timor, it will end the long-standing violation of international law resulting from Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor and the ongoing military occupation.
The accord obligates Indonesia to take the necessary steps to repeal its annexation of East Timor and transfer authority over the territory to the United Nations if the East Timorese people reject autonomy. If the voters approve autonomy, Portugal and the U.N. will legally recognize East Timor as part of Indonesia. For the first time, the people of East Timor will be able to decide their political status.
The International Federation for East Timor (IFET)* is working to support United Nations efforts to ensure that the East Timorese people are able to make that decision in an atmosphere free of coercion and terror. We are sending people to East Timor to observe the consultation process. We will not campaign for or against autonomy, but will be there to support the East Timorese people's right to decide for themselves.
But, as numerous first-hand and journalistic accounts have documented, the Indonesian military and the paramilitary "civilian militias" it is supporting are trying to sabotage the vote. Violence against supporters of independence has reached horrific levels over the last several weeks. The paramilitaries have killed more than 150 people since April, and forced more than 50,000 people to flee their homes, often inflicting violence against random civilians to create a climate of universal fear.
The people of East Timor are thus at a crossroads of crisis and opportunity. We in the international community can help ensure that East Timor turns toward opportunity. For this reason, the International Federation for East Timor (IFET) is encouraging individuals and groups to join our project to send neutral volunteer observers to East Timor to ensure a fair vote without prejudice to the outcome. In addition to observing and reporting on the campaign and voting process, IFET observers, as visible representatives of the world community, will help deter violent efforts to subvert the process.
Section E(f) of the "Agreement Regarding the Modalities for the Popular Consultation of the East Timorese Through a Direct Ballot" states that "International observers will be able to observe the consultation process under terms to be developed by the United Nations to regulate the process." In this regard, international community has a role to play in reducing violence intended to prevent the East Timorese from participating in "a free and fair popular consultation process."
IFET observers will work primarily in three areas:
As an international federation, IFET takes no position for or against the proposed autonomy plan. We are in East Timor to ensure that the East Timorese people are able to make that decision themselves. Our observers will be neutral; we will work with non-aligned groups in East Timor as well as with various Indonesian non-governmental organizations, U.N. personnel, and other observer missions. IFET will also be in contact with both pro-independence and pro-autonomy advocates, as well as with Indonesian civilian and military officials, to ensure them that we are not taking sides.
The International Federation for East Timor is coordinating this project on the international level. The project will not receive logistical, security or financial support from the United Nations, but the U.N. will provide accreditation to IFET observers and we will follow the U.N. Code of Conduct for observers. There will be other observer missions in East Timor during the consultation process. IFET will endeavor to coordinate our work with theirs we are part of a larger effort by the international community to ensure the legitimacy of the U.N. consultation process. Our unique role is to facilitate participation by NGO and individual activists and human rights workers from all over the world, but we have no intention to preclude other observer delegations.
IFET observers will be volunteers; most observers will raise their own costs of transportation, food, and lodging. At the same time, IFET will be raising substantial funds for an office in Dili and to hire staff to coordinate the project within and outside of East Timor. We hope that participating groups and individuals will help raise money for these common costs.
IFET-associated individuals and groups in different countries will oversee the recruitment, screening, training and coordination of observers from those countries, but they will do so according to internationally-established procedures and in close consultation with the international IFET coordinating group. IFET will also have people based in East Timor to help with logistics (lodging, deployment, etc.) as individuals arrive in Dili.
Although we will take responsibility for the people we bring to East Timor, our first priority is to support the East Timor consultation, and we will endeavor to minimize problems caused by IFET observers. Participants must be in good physical health (as certified by a medical release) and be able to work under pressure and with emotional and psychological stress. IFET observers will be mature, stable individuals. Most, therefore, will be 25 years old or older, but some will be as young as 18. The working language of the IFET observer project will be English. Facility with Indonesian, Tetum, and/or Portuguese would be of great benefit. For non-English-speaking IFET observers, other observers from their home country will provide interpretation.
In addition to agreeing to follow the U.N.-issued Code of Conduct, all observers associated with the IFET project will sign a contract by which they agree to be nonviolent, nonpartisan, and to respect IFET decisions. If we find that a participant has failed to abide by the contract and undermined the larger project, IFET could terminate that person's relationship with our project and/or take additional steps to distance them from our mission.
IFET will carefully screen all applicants. All IFET observers will receive training before going to East Timor. Once there, IFET and/or our East Timorese and Indonesian partners will provide further orientation. Our people will have a range of experience and knowledge of election monitoring and East Timor's situation, culture and language.
The project will deploy observers throughout the territory. While we certainly want observers to have a presence in rural areas, we will make sure that observers are stationed in towns of relative size for safety, logistical support, and ease of communication. Our observers will be deployed in pairs or larger groups.
The crucial time will be the weeks leading up to the vote. Some IFET observers will arrive by mid-June, the start of voter registration. We hope to have at least 100 in place by early July, with more arriving as the August vote approaches. We encourage observers to stay for at least one month, but we will not dissuade qualified people from coming for shorter periods. Some IFET observers will stay in East Timor after the vote and the announcement of the results, especially if the voters reject autonomy. Depending on the situation and the need, this could develop into an ongoing project.
* The International Federation for East Timor (IFET) was founded in 1991 by East Timor support organizations from four continents as a clearinghouse for non-governmental initiatives on East Timor. IFET is accredited with the United Nations Department of Public Information. Our secretariat is in the Philippines and we have a representative at the U.N. in New York. IFET includes more than 35 members from 22 countries, including both single-issue East Timor groups and others with a wider range of concerns, and has formed a sub-group to organize this nonpartisan observer project.