Vol. 7, No. 2
Will East Timor See Justice?
Sometime next year, East Timor will be independent. As East Timor grapples with the challenges of nation-building, the United States is solidifying its ties to the newest member of the international community. The process raises many questions for both countries, and for ETAN and other supporters of the East Timorese people.
Since 1991, ETAN has supported East Timorese human rights, including the right to self-determination. We campaigned against U.S. support for the repressive Suharto regime, working in solidarity with the East Timorese resistance, both in exile and in East Timor, as they struggled to end the Indonesian occupation. The East Timorese people won their independence, and ETAN is proud to have been a part of that effort.
As East Timor evolves from occupied territory to nation, many East Timorese leaders and activists we work with are becoming government officials. This shift involves new responsibilities and constraints, as diplomatic and political considerations require cooperative relationships, even with former enemies. At the same time, a new generation of East Timorese activist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is emerging, part of a vibrant civil society. Although ETAN maintains friendly relationships with political leaders, our natural partners are the educators, agitators, advocates and organizers who do in their country what we do in ours.
As U.S. activists with a critical analysis of our country's global agenda, ETAN is analyzing proposed ties between our government and East Timor's transitional and future administrations. Politicians in the U.S. and East Timor are looking for a relationship similar to those the U.S. has with other nations, but activists in both countries dream of better possibilities. We seek a non-militarized, economically just, ecologically sustainable way for East Timor to survive in a world increasingly dominated by global "free-market" forces. Although the ideal may seem unattainable, so was independence for East Timor when ETAN formed in 1991.
Transition to Independence Act
East Timor's allies in Congress are unwittingly clarifying the issues. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) and 38 others have sponsored the East Timor Transition to Independence Act (HR 675/S 375), outlining the United States-East Timor relationship for the next three years. When he introduced the bill in February, Rep. Lantos (ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee) said:
"This bill outlines a trade, aid, and security agenda enabling the people of East Timor to fulfill their dream of democratic self-governance. Having helped deliver the people of East Timor from repressive rule, America has a responsibility - and a strong national interest - in finishing the job of building democracy."
Although some may differ over whether "America" helped deliver East Timor from or into Indonesian repression, the United States and East Timor will have an economic and political relationship, and we need to understand its ramifications.
The 17-page bill authorizes the U.S. government to fund and establish projects and ties with UNTAET and, after independence, with East Timor's government. ETAN offered numerous suggestions as the bill was drafted; some were accepted, some were not.
We support positive aspects of the bill, including the establishment of a U.S. diplomatic mission in East Timor, $1 million annually in scholarships for East Timorese to study in the United States, and backing for an international tribunal. The East Timorese people struggled hard to become independent, and it is appropriate for the United States to deal with them as a nation. But the United States has an unbalanced relationship with nearly every country in the world. Although we should not hold East Timor hostage to global inequities, some aspects of the proposed U.S.-East Timor relationship are problematic. Many ETAN members and East Timorese NGOs oppose them on principled grounds. The following is an overview, ask ETAN if you would like a more thorough analysis.
The East Timor Transition to Independence Act would authorize surplus weapons and International Military Education and Training (IMET) for the East Timor Defense Force (ETDF). The assistance must be "in the national security interests of the United States" and "promote both human rights and the professionalization of the armed forces of East Timor."
Many ETAN activists came to work on East Timor because U.S. military support made us complicit in Indonesia's occupation. For thirty years, the U.S. aided Suharto's army as they killed at least a million Indonesians and one-third of the East Timorese population. Between 1975 and 1997, the United States shipped $1.2 billion worth of weapons to Indonesia. U.S. taxpayers hosted 2,600 Indonesian soldiers under IMET until 1991, and thousands more were secretly trained by U.S. soldiers in Indonesia until 1998.
Looking worldwide, we cannot find a single case where U.S. weapons or military training helped human rights, democracy, or the rule of law. There is no reason to expect East Timor to be different. When we challenged U.S. patronage of Suharto's troops, we argued that the Pentagon's record should disqualify it from training anyone, anywhere. U.S. military training, for example at the School of the Americas, supports repression. Much of what is taught has no place in any civilized country. Although some East Timorese leaders are softening their positions, ETAN unequivocally opposes any U.S. military support for Indonesia until all officials responsible for crimes in East Timor are held accountable and the Indonesian military ceases to be a repressive force.
The East Timor Defense Force, derived from the FALINTIL guerrilla army, has a strong record of discipline and respect for human rights. FALINTIL's restraint during the 1999 military/militia terror was exemplary, and could teach much to U.S. soldiers. The Pentagon has nothing to offer the ETDF that will benefit East Timor's population or national security, especially since the United Nations peacekeepers will continue to provide border security after independence.
The bill also authorizes U.S. law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and DEA, to assist East Timor's justice system. Since East Timor has no significant drug problem, there is no need for the DEA. The FBI has a history of civil liberties violations which render it unworthy of export to East Timor.
The bill authorizes $30 million annually in bilateral and multilateral aid and $2 million/year in Peace Corps funding. These programs will benefit East Timor, but their main purposes are funding U.S. businesses and advancing the image of the United States. East Timor has primary responsibility to accept, reject or modify aid to suit its needs. ETAN, together with La'o Hamutuk and other East Timorese NGOs, can inform about the intentions and consequences of such programs, facilitate East Timorese learning from other countries, and try to influence our government. Despite our reservations, there are no alternatives for this level of funding.
Economic injustices perpetrated in the name of "free trade," exploitation of the resources and labor of poorer countries to benefit corporations and wealthy individuals in the United States and other rich nations, are facilitated by most U.S. aid and trade policies, including those in this bill. Our planet does not contain a small, underdeveloped country which enjoys a fair and mutually beneficial economic relationship with the United States; the unbalanced match makes it hard to say no to United States political, military and economic power. Like every small country, East Timor will need imports and therefore be part of the global economy. Consequently, East Timor will trade with the U.S., and that trade should be scrutinized for its impact on the East Timorese people.
The bill includes mechanisms to encourage U.S. investment and trade, including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the Trade and Development Agency , the Export-Import Bank, Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) tariff waivers and a bilateral investment treaty. These provide subsidies (risk insurance, loans or reduced tariffs) for U.S. investors in East Timor.
Progressive U.S. activists opposed some of these programs for Indonesia to pressure for improved labor and environmental rights. Denying these programs for East Timor would, in effect, impose sanctions to protest entrenched U.S. pro-corporate policies. Rather, we can help this benefit the East Timorese by working for equitable, sustainable, appropriate, and environmentally sound models that respect labor, human and women's rights.
As East Timor attains independence, ETAN will work with East Timorese NGOs to make the United States' relationship with the new nation as fair and generous as possible. It is a complex and difficult challenge.
Return to Spring 2001 Menu