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LONDON — U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has rightly drawn attention to the “need for timely intervention by the international community when death and suffering are being inflicted on large numbers of people, and when the state nominally in charge is unable or unwilling to stop it.” He has pointed out that in Kosovo, Rwanda and East Timor “the international community stands accused of doing too little, too late.” Intervention, he has asserted, “must be based on legitimate and universal principles.” He added that “state sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined. . . . At the same time individual sovereignty — by which I mean the fundamental freedom of each individual, enshrined in the charter of the United Nations and subsequent international treaties — has been enhanced by a renewed and spreading consciousness of human rights.” And he has called for a redefinition of national interests “which would induce states to find greater unity in the pursuit of common goals and values.”

Few would disagree with these sentiments. The problem is how to translate them into an agreed basis for action. Annan was critical of NATO for having intervened in Kosovo without obtaining the prior approval of the Security Council, but while Russia and China were prepared to veto the U.N. action against Serbia, the international community was forced to stand aside and watch the obscene “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo by Serb forces. Public opinion in Western Europe and North America would not tolerate this. Unfortunately NATO intervention through aerial bombardment did not work quickly enough and huge numbers of Albanians were forced to flee from their homes and some appalling atrocities were committed. It is wholly understandable that people in NATO countries were most reluctant to send troops to fight in Kosovo, far from home, where there was no obvious national interest at stake.

Annan is right to call on the nations of the world to recognize that the interests of humanity generally form part of all our national interests. If NATO countries had been prepared to make it clear to Serbia at the outset that NATO forces would, if necessary, be prepared to fight a land battle, much suffering might have been averted, but it is easy to understand why it did not happen that way.

The tragedy of Rwanda was particularly shameful. The massacres there took place in a part of Central Africa about which few people knew much, and, while the media did report on the problems there occasionally, Rwanda never got the sort of coverage that was given to Bosnia and later to Kosovo.

In East Timor, the U.N. decision to hold a vote on independence was absolutely right in principle. There was ample evidence that the Indonesians had maltreated the people of East Timor for years. Their behavior there was worse than that of many old-fashioned colonial regimes. This new colonialism was only different in that it was carried out by ethnically similar people.

Unfortunately, however, the U.N. had not thought through what would happen if, as was almost certain, the people voted for independence. They did not realize how weak Indonesian President B.J. Habibie’s government was. Nor did they appreciate the mood of the Indonesian Army, which regarded independence for East Timor as setting a dangerous precedent for other parts of the Indonesian archipelago, such as Aceh in North Sumatra and West Irian (Western New Guinea).

This said, it was very difficult for the U.N. to pull back from the referendum, which had been accepted by the Indonesian government. Naively, it was thought or hoped that the Indonesian Army would be willing and able to suppress the militias and would keep order until independence was achieved. The U.N. were not, therefore, ready to do anything even to protect their own personnel, let alone the population of East Timor, when the militias, aided and abetted by the military, went on a murderous rampage.

The Indonesian government’s reluctance, under pressure from the army and waves of nationalist sentiment, to accept a U.N. force and consequent hedging — for example, about the composition of the force — meant that when the Security Council finally authorized the dispatch of a multilateral force, the situation had significantly worsened. However, the speed with which a force was put together under Australian leadership was commendable. The Australian government had been the only Western government to recognize the incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia and for geographical reasons had done a great deal to help Indonesia. Australian policy had been too sanguine about prospects for Indonesia, and the Australian government was understandably reluctant to take the lead on East Timor, but after realizing the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster there, it took the right decisions and acted quickly to implement them. The Indonesian reaction to Australian action was, to say the least, puerile.

Now, the international community is naturally torn between its humanitarian obligations in East Timor and the wider need to try to prevent the disintegration of Indonesia — with the economic and political chaos that would invite intervention by the Indonesian military.

The East Timor problem is a relatively small one in comparison with, say, Tibet. Sadly, the international community has to recognize that it is unable to do anything practical to support Tibetan independence and punish the Chinese officials and soldiers responsible over so many years for atrocities there.

But what about repression in Myanmar? There is much sympathy in Britain for those who have suffered at the hands of the military regime there. Yet the situation is very different from that in Kosovo, East Timor and Rwanda. Apart from refraining from doing anything which might help the regime in Myanmar, such as investing in the country, and making sure that Myanmar officials are not welcomed on visits or at international conferences, there is probably little that the international community can do to help bring democracy to Myanmar. It is always necessary to consider how far sanctions will hurt ordinary people instead of an obnoxious regime.

The Japanese government, so far as I am aware, has maintained its usual stance on East Timor, i.e. wringing its hands and making general statements of support for the U.N. I know that it is difficult for any Japanese government, if only for historical reasons, to give firmer support for human rights, but a Japan that aspires to permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council should be willing to give as much moral and practical support as possible to the U.N. in East Timor.

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