Subject: 1World: Robinson grilled over justice in East Timor

Robinson grilled over justice in East Timor

16 August 2000 By Daniel Nelson Special to the OneWorld News Service

Economic and social rights are as important as traditionally defined human rights, UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson emphasised on her recent visit to East Timor. But many people in what will soon become the world's newest independent country made it clear they had a more pressing priority: justice for past wrongs.

Robinson stressed her message about the need for a range of rights in her first appearance in the shattered capital, Dili, now slowly recovering from the catastrophic three weeks of murder, rape, arson and destruction and general mayhem inflicted by the Indonesian army, police and local anti-independence militias after the Timorese voted against continued Indonesian rule in a UN-supervised referendum in August 1999.

The meeting she was addressing was held in the capital's museum, a rubble-strewn shell of a building, one room of which had been swept clean of dust earlier that morning. It is typical of the entire country: 80 percent of the territory's buildings were burnt or damaged in the September mayhem, and about 300,000 people were forced to flee their homes.

The Timorese want justice for those responsible. Many also want redress for the previous 24 years of Indonesian repression, which began when Jakarta ordered an invasion of the territory soon after Portugal suddenly ended its 400-year colonial regime.

A frequently quoted estimate is that at least 200,000 people died as a result of Indonesian rule - approaching one-third of the population. Several members of the audience at Mary Robinson's public meeting made it clear that this was as big an issue as the post-election violence. Robinson carefully deflected this demand, explaining that though she was aware of "the terrible crimes committed down the years", for which she thought a Truth and Reconciliation Commission might be the best remedy, the UN was concerned only with the events of last September, because the destruction had occurred while the UN was in charge.

She also faced criticism for her insistence on sticking to the UN line that the establishment of an international tribunal for the worst perpetrators was a last resort. It was up to the administration in East Timor - the UN now, and after elections next year, an East Timorese government - and to Indonesia to try those responsible. Only if that approach failed to deliver would the UN consider an international inquiry.

Few Timorese, however, have the slightest faith in Jakarta's willingness to pursue those responsible: not only was the violence organised and guided by Indonesia, they point out, but the policy was engineered at very high levels. Will Jakarta really be prepared to take on senior army officers? Robinson refused to budge. It was important, she argued, to recognise that Jakarta was changing. The Suharto dictatorship had ended, and an elected government was in power; it had to be given a chance to prove its credentials and to enable Indonesia to take "full ownership" of its crimes.

It was also "appropriate and right to allow a country the right to jurisdiction over its nationals." Jakarta had promised justice for those responsible, and a special law was being drawn up to deal with "perpetrators of serious crimes." She admitted she was not satisfied with the legislation as it stood, "but there's a continuing possibility to influence and strengthen the draft to make it more credible."

Ok, responded a questioner, but how long would Indonesia be given before the UN decided its intentions were not serious?

The question is unanswerable, though she did again point out that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself had stated that the establishment of an international commission was being held in as a possibility, in case it proved necessary.

Towards the end of the meeting, she again repeated the importance of cultural and economic rights, and of women's rights. But few picked up on it. Of course, the Timorese want a better standard of living, and freedom to be themselves. But for the moment, a burning demand for justice for the terrible wrongs of their recent history is uppermost in their minds.

Another issue is missing from this passionate debate. What about those responsible for the political climate that enabled Indonesia to invade, and then to maintain its rule, by repression, including killing and torture. The Indonesian government was able to pursue this policy because, effectively, influential Western governments sanctioned it to do so, or, at best, turned a blind eye to the excesses.

Australia, now so enthusiastic in East Timor's reconstruction, officially recognised Indonesia's annexation. Britain sold jets to the occupying army. The US put geopolitical considerations above people's freedom. When the Cold War ended, supporting "our son of a bitch" rather than "their son of a bitch", as a Washington policymaker once crudely expressed it, was no longer paramount.

It was the tacit support of the West that created an environment in which Indonesia's ruthless policies flourished, and human rights abuses were ignored. Indonesia had impunity.

Human rights thinking has moved beyond individual liberties, to take in a broader approach, as Mary Robinson rightly explains. And nothing excuses individual crimes, such as torture. But until those responsible for turning human rights from rhetoric to reality recognise the role played by high-level international policies in the interests of realpolitik, governments will often feel free to ignore human rights.

Daniel Nelson is Dispatches Editor with, and is currently working with the United Nations in East Timor. 

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