Subject: The Age/Feature: Will Wahid Tackle Timor's Terrorists?

The Age [Melbourne] Wednesday 2 February 2000


Will Wahid tackle Timor's terrorists?


THE Indonesian Government doesn't have an impressive record of investigating its own crimes in East Timor. And the Australian Government has been equally suspect in its reactions to Jakarta's inquiries.

The Djaelini inquiry, reluctantly established by the Suharto Government to investigate the 1991 Dili massacre, consciously underestimated the number of people killed at the Santa Cruz cemetery in November that year, and resulted in stiffer sentences being handed out to the victims of the shootings than to the military perpetrators.

In his enthusiasm to maintain good relations with Jakarta, Australia's then Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, described the Djaelini Commission as "credible and reasonable", although a more sober report by Amnesty International said the inquiry was "totally lacking in credibility and designed principally to appease international criticism".

It is therefore reasonable to be cautious about the findings of Indonesia's National Commission for Human Rights, released on Monday, which recommends that more than 20 military, police and militia commanders be prosecuted for atrocities committed in East Timor last year. The report, and reactions to it by President Wahid, raise a series of difficult issues and unanswered questions.

The commission found that General Wiranto, who was Defence Minister and head of the armed forces at the time, had "full knowledge" of the terror inflicted on East Timor last September. Because he failed to intervene to stop the killing, looting and forced displacement of the population, the commission recommends that he face charges relating to "omission". In other words, the inquiry found no evidence that Wiranto had planned or orchestrated the violence. He bears only moral responsibility for what happened.

This is incredible in the true sense of the word, and unlikely to satisfy either the East Timorese or those human rights organisations and United Nations officials pushing for the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate crimes against humanity in East Timor. By blaming senior military officers for creating "an atmosphere of impunity ... for the violations of human rights", the commission actually distances them from direct responsibility for the slaughter.

There seems little doubt that Canberra have signals intercepts that clearly implicate a "pro-active" Wiranto in the planning and execution of crimes in East Timor, though it is doubtful that this intelligence would be shared with prosecuting authorities in Jakarta. The Howard Government knows that this material would be needed to indict Wiranto for crimes against humanity, just as British and United States intelligence was crucial for similar charges to be brought against Serbian President Milosevic for his ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The Howard Government may be happier to pass the information to New York, but it is far from certain that the UN Security Council has the appetite for an international tribunal for East Timor.

Wahid, who surprisingly appointed Wiranto to his first Cabinet, yesterday appeared to pre-empt the result of any prosecution by reportedly indicating that the former armed forces chief would be pardoned if found guilty of the charges brought against him. This follows Wahid's promise to pardon former President Suharto if he is ever found guilty of corruption.

If he has indeed made such a commitment to Wiranto, it is a sign that Wahid is shoring up his support within the military - but he does so at a cost to both the Indonesian legal process and to international goodwill, which wants Indonesia to have the first crack at bringing those responsible for state terror in East Timor to justice. Crimes on this scale are rarely tried in-house; more frequently they are held in third countries and often at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

But does Indonesia have a judiciary, untainted by corruption and political patronage, that is up to the task? In order to satisfy the international community, the Indonesian President may have to swallow some of his pride and consider the option of inviting international judges to share the benches in the trials to follow. Otherwise the trials will simply lack credibility.

The commission's findings are also embarrassing for the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, who on 7 March last year, when asked whether the Indonesian military was arming and organising the militias, told Channel 9's Sunday program that "if it's happening at all, it certainly isn't something that's been condoned by General Wiranto".

It's always dangerous to be so unequivocal in international diplomacy, particularly when your own intelligence is telling you a different story. Downer could not have foreseen that an Indonesian human rights inquiry would subsequently expose these remarks, but he has fewer excuses for claiming on 5September, at the height of the post-ballot slaughter, that he was confident Wiranto was still "trying to do the right thing".

Scott Burchill lectures in international relations at Deakin University.E-mail:

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