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Could the U.N. have done more?


A NOT SO DISTANT HORROR: Mass Violence in East Timor, by Joseph Nevins. New York: Cornell University Press, 2005, 273 pp., $18.95 (cloth).

This is a gripping and powerful saga rooted in the horrible atrocities and deprivation endured by the East Timorese following Indonesia’s invasion in 1975. Indonesian security forces ruled ruthlessly until 1999, causing nearly 200,000 conflict-related deaths, imprisoning and torturing thousands more, while raping and plundering with abandon. A generation of East Timorese grew up where the rule of law was a distant rumor and human rights were routinely violated. Joseph Nevins briefly recapitulates this history, focusing on international complicity in these crimes against humanity, but mostly dwells on the troubling failure to secure justice.

Finally, in 1999, President B.J. Habibie, successor to the deposed and disgraced President Suharto, surprisingly agreed to allow the East Timorese to choose between autonomy and independence in a U.N. administered referendum. Nevins recounts the hopes and horrors of 1999 when Indonesian backed militias engaged in widespread violence and intimidation in an ill-fated bid to quell pro-independence forces.

He argues convincingly that this orchestrated violence, and the bloody retribution that ensued after East Timorese chose independence could have been avoided had the United Nations acted on explicit and repeated warnings. By agreeing to let the Indonesians take responsibility for security in the runup to the elections, the U.N. naively consigned the East Timorese to the goodwill of occupiers who had a long and sanguinary record of brutality. Jose Ramos Horta, a Nobel laureate and currently foreign minister, remarked at the time that it was akin to putting the Khmer Rouge in charge of election security in Cambodia.

The blunders of the U.N. in East Timor are part of a longer story of international insouciance. Nevins writes, “As other Western powers did, Australia made a decision to effectively sacrifice the people of East Timor for its more beneficial relationship with Indonesia.” This entailed selling out their neighbor for a favorable seabed boundary agreement that conferred billions in oil and gas revenues. For the United States, the complicity in aiding and abetting Indonesia was typical of tawdry Cold War bargains, cultivating a repressive regime for the forces of “freedom and democracy.”

In 1999 as in 1975, the international community had the means to influence Indonesian behavior in East Timor but failed to do so. Nevins asserts that, “The subjugation of, and the commission of mass atrocities in, East Timor were very much a multilateral effort.” Leaders who could have intervened stood on the sidelines while Indonesia’s local militias wreaked havoc before and after the referendum.

Belatedly, Australian troops were dispatched to establish peace in a devastated land. Given that this ground zero scenario was widely predicted, and the Australians shared communications intercepts confirming Indonesian planning for this scorched-earth vengeance in time to prevent it, there is no fig-leaf to skulk behind. In the greater scheme of things, East Timor did not matter enough.

Nevins argues that the world’s most powerful nations have much to answer for because they “enabled, through the provision of military, economic and politico-diplomatic resources — the commission of war crimes that would not have been possible otherwise.”

Indonesia has benefited greatly from the post-9/11 recalculation of geostrategic interests as the U.S. has recruited Jakarta to help in the “war on terror.” Effectively, this means that international pressures on Indonesia to engage in a reckoning regarding excesses in East Timor has evaporated.

Thus, the natural desire for justice is confronting “an international order that is harshly unfavorable to the relatively small and weak, a reality that East Timor is in a poor position to challenge.” Bold calls for accountability and breaking the cycle of impunity have faded. The U.N. Security Council and the secretary general are no longer backing international judicial mechanisms to prosecute crimes against humanity.

In his view, the failure to pursue justice and reparations is symptomatic of a “double standard that underlies a world order in which there is rarely accountability by those who victimize the relatively weak . . . while the rich and powerful either enjoy impunity for their own crimes or can bomb and kill those they accuse of criminality.”

Nevins is sympathetic to East Timor’s leaders, caught as they are between the demands for justice by their people and the indifference of the international community. On its own, East Timor can not realize justice and thus emphasizes a pragmatic reconciliation with Jakarta. This bitter reality is one of the traumatic legacies of mass violence, one that confers impunity on the perpetrators in Indonesia.