Just over a year ago, in August 1999, I was in the Baucau district of East Timor, helping to monitor the leadup to the referendum on independence as a U.N.-accredited observer with the independent International Federation for East Timor Observer Project.
Although the Baucau region was considered one of the safest areas of the country, members of our group were told many times by locals that they were afraid of being attacked by the Indonesian military or the militias they controlled on Aug. 30, the day of the vote, or in the post-ballot period. With the Indonesian police in charge of security and the U.N. civilian police unarmed, it was easy to see why they were frightened.
The United Nations, however, encouraged people to vote, promising that it would remain in East Timor after the ballot, no matter what happened. The large numbers of international observers and journalists throughout the territory also acted as an implicit assurance to the East Timorese that this time the world would not desert them and leave them to their fate.
Tragically, these promises were broken. After the vote, the Indonesian military and its militia groups forced U.N. staff and other internationals out of the country and embarked on a preplanned orgy of killing, destruction and forced transportation of around 270,000 people to West Timor, where 100,000 or more still languish in squalid refugee camps.
Now, on the anniversary of the referendum, the international community should stop and reflect on its share of responsibility for the atrocities that occurred in East Timor last year and during the 24 years of the Indonesian occupation that preceded it.
Despite numerous U.N. resolutions condemning Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor as illegal, major world powers continued to finance, arm and provide diplomatic support to Indonesia throughout the occupation. When the East Timorese finally succeeded in gaining a chance to vote on their future, there was no international political will to demand proper protection for them by insisting on the withdrawal of Indonesian troops and the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers for the referendum.
On the contrary, Indonesia — the very party recognized as the aggressor in East Timor by the U.N. and responsible for decades of terror — was put in charge of security.
With Indonesia thus officially characterized as a neutral participant, the escalating violence in East Timor after the referendum was announced in Jan. 1999 was interpreted by many as a civil war-type scenario between pro-independence and pro-autonomy groups. In fact, it was a one-sided attack by the Indonesian military and its militias on a defenseless population, designed to intimidate people into voting against independence. This was widely recognized by the international community months before the vote, but no serious effort was made to pressure Indonesia into stopping the violence, and no contingency plans were made to protect the East Timorese in the post-ballot period.
The U.N. International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor, which was convened in Nov. 1999 to conduct a preliminary investigation into violations of international humanitarian law committed in East Timor from Jan. 1999, stated in its final report released in Jan. 2000 that the Indonesian Army was ultimately responsible for the violence, by facilitating and some cases directly participating in acts of terror.
The commission called for the U.N. to establish an international tribunal to conduct further systematic investigations of human-rights violations committed in East Timor, prosecute those responsible and ensure reparations for the victims.
However, instead of acting promptly on these recommendations, the world once again dragged its feet. Despite the commission’s finding that the violence in East Timor constituted a pattern of serious violations of fundamental human rights and humanitarian law, and a direct challenge to the authority of the U.N. itself, the U.N. decided to wait for the results of Indonesia’s internal investigation, stating that an international tribunal would only be convened if the Indonesian trial was found lacking.
It is now time to evaluate the progress of the Indonesian domestic inquiry. Unfortunately, there is little good news to report.
KPP-HAM, the investigative team set up by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights to carry out preliminary inquiries into the East Timor atrocities, also concluded that the Indonesian military was complicit in the violence and that Gen. Wiranto, then chief of the armed forces, knew about it but did nothing to stop it.
However, the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) recently passed a constitutional amendment introducing the principle of “non-retroactivity” into Indonesian law, without exceptions. As crimes against humanity of the kind that occurred in East Timor, such as murder, torture, deportation and sexual abuse committed systematically as part of government policy, are not offenses under present Indonesian law, the amendment means that it will now be impossible for Indonesian prosecutors to try those responsible for these offenses in East Timor.
Even if perpetrators are tried for ordinary criminal offenses under the current Indonesian Penal Code, only low-ranking soldiers and militia will be punished, as the code does not allow for military leaders to be tried under the principle of command responsibility. Higher-ranking officers responsible for planning the violence will escape with impunity, as occurred in the recent tribunal on human-rights abuses in Aceh.
Attorney General Marzuki Darusman announced last weekend that high-ranking officials would be among those listed as suspects in Indonesia’s domestic investigation, but the constitutional amendment, along with widespread corruption in the Indonesian judiciary, rules out any chance of a trial of an internationally acceptable standard taking place in Indonesia.
Indonesian military, which appeared to be on the defensive earlier in the year, now seems to be gaining renewed confidence, winning impunity for its past crimes with the constitutional amendment and also regaining favor overseas with moves by the United States to normalize military relations. Increasing militia incursions into East Timor and attacks on UNHCR staff assisting refugees in West Timor are other ominous signs of an emboldened military. Currently, the atmosphere in East Timor is tense, with fears that attacks on the local population and international peacekeepers may be carried out on the anniversary of the referendum.
It is obvious that the best way to ensure justice for the East Timorese, and support the Indonesian democracy movement, is to bring international pressure to bear to curb the power of the Indonesian armed forces. An essential element of this process is to move immediately to set up an international tribunal to bring to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor, not only in 1999, but throughout the entire period of the Indonesian occupation. Those in foreign governments such as the U.S. and Australia who “green-lighted” the 1975 invasion should also be held accountable for their actions.
The international community bears a heavy responsibility toward the East Timorese, first for turning a blind eye to the Indonesian occupation of East Timor for 24 years, then for allowing the referendum to take place under conditions of terror. It is too late to bring back the dead, but it is still possible to ensure that justice is done. This is the very least we can do.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.