Vol. 7, No. 3
Ashes to Ashes: Reflections on Terror
Ashes to Ashes:
|NGO activists from Fokupers and Yayasan Hak bring their condolence messages and flowers to the U.S. Mission in Dili. September 13. Photo by Charles Scheiner.|
official act of East Timor’s newly elected assembly was to mourn for
the dead and missing from the awful attacks on New York and Washington.
The East Timorese know much about acts of mass murder and wanton
destruction. They know much about mourning.
In 1999, East Timor experienced its own destruction. After East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence, the Indonesian military systematically razed the country. They did a thorough job, destroying up to 80 percent of its buildings. Whole towns and villages were gutted. Hundreds of women and girls were raped and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes. An estimated 2,000 East Timorese were murdered, among the last of more than 200,000 killed during the course of Indonesia’s 24-year occupation – many at the hands of troops wielding U.S.-supplied weapons. The murder and destruction ended only after the U.S. severed military ties and an international peacekeeping force was deployed.
The perpetrators of those crimes are well known. A report by Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission named dozens of names, mostly from the Indonesian military. Other investigations point to additional masterminds. Two years later, none have been brought to trial. Some of those responsible retain high positions in the Indonesian military or government, where they are directing similar crimes against civilians throughout Indonesia.
It would be correct to call Indonesia a nation harboring the terrorists
who committed crimes against humanity in East Timor, but there is no
international outcry to bomb Jakarta. Indeed, the East Timorese would be
aghast at the idea. They have seen enough death and destruction. This is
truly amazing, given that one would be hard-pressed to find a woman or man
in East Timor who has not lost at least one family member during Indonesia’s
Unlike the mighty United States, East Timor is a small nation that will not even become formally independent until next May. The East Timorese could not act unilaterally to detain and try their former tormentors even if they wanted to. It is troubling that there has been so little international action to bring the agents of destruction to justice. Some still advise we should wait until Indonesia prosecutes its own. But while Jakarta may engage in a few token prosecutions, no one really expects them to accomplish much, and prosecutors in East Timor are unlikely to get custody to try the masterminds of the 1999 violence.
The means to justice for East Timor is clear. A January 2000 report by a United Nations special commission of inquiry recommended an international tribunal along the lines of those now sitting in judgment of systematic human rights violators in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia.
Two years after the destruction of their country, the people of East Timor remain angry, but they are not looking for vengeance. Indeed, many militia members have already been reintegrated into their communities. Few have suffered any form of retaliatory violence. The East Timorese want the people most responsible tried and punished according to law.
Here in the U.S., people are also angry. But in its effort to build a “coalition against terrorism,” the Bush administration recently restored some of the military ties that were severed in 1999 as Indonesia was terrorizing East Timor, even though Congressional stipulations — including return of the refugees and the prosecution of human rights violators — have not been met (see article page 6). Giving assistance to a military and police that continue to systematically violate human rights does not support justice. Human rights, at home or abroad, should not be sacrificed in the name of holding accountable those responsible for the attack on my city.
Creating an international tribunal for East Timor would demonstrate a real commitment to the rule of law. The victims of the September attacks on the U.S. deserve justice; so do the people of East Timor. Both would be honored by actions that build peace and respect international law.
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