Subject: AWSJ: Column/Nancy Soderberg: Helping East Timor

Asian Wall Street Journal December 10, 2000

AWSJ: Column: US Amb. Soderberg on Helping East Timor


(Editor's Note: This is an opinion piece from Monday's Asian Wall Street Journal. Ambassador Soderberg is the alternative U.S. representative for special political affairs to the United Nations.)

With much of the world's attention on developments in Florida and the Middle East, it has been a challenge for the international community to stay engaged with issues elsewhere. One such issue is East Timor. The success of the United Nations' efforts to assist the people of East Timor to achieve independence matters not only to the 800,000 occupants of half an island. It also has implications for the future stability of Indonesia and the role of the U.N. in the 21st century. Staying engaged is the key.

Why does East Timor matter any more to Indonesia? An estimated 120,000 East Timorese refugees are still on Indonesian soil, in pitiable refugee camps in the western part of Timor Island. Intimidation by militias poses a continued threat to peace and security on the island as well as to efforts to resolve the refugee problem.

The brutal murder of three U.N. High Commission for Refugee workers on Sept. 6 cast a pall over the government's effort to control the situation. Political instability, economic uncertainty, secessionist movements in Irian Jaya and Aceh, and inter-religious violence in the Malukas all threaten the well being of Indonesia's still-young democracy. Resolving the remaining problems in Timor -- East and West -- is in the interest of Indonesia, the U.N. and the United States.

Following the murder of the three UNHCR workers, the U.N. Security Council dispatched a mission to the region to review implementation of a number of key steps it had recommended to address these festering problems. The Security Council had called on the Indonesian government to disarm and disband the militias, restore law and order in West Timor, ensure safety and security in the refugee camps, and prevent cross-border incursions.

The mission traveled Nov. 9-17 to East and West Timor as well as to Jakarta to discuss the situation with U.N., East Timorese and Indonesian officials. I participated in the mission, along with colleagues from the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Argentina, Tunisia and Malaysia.

The gains made by the U.N. and the people of East Timor in the year since the militias went on their ruinous rampage are impressive. Many buildings are repaired, commerce is returning and the nascent elements of a new nation are evolving.

Yet, failure to adequately address several crucial issues -- the ongoing threat of the militias, the refugee problem, and the lack of progress on reconciliation and justice -- threatens the gains.

Perhaps the most serious problem is the militias, which continue to intimidate refugees in West Timor. They have blocked returns, spread misinformation about the conditions in East Timor and, together with some elements of the Indonesian army, have reportedly extorted money or livestock from some of the refugees who did return.

Until they loose their grip on the refugees, it will be very difficult to get the refugees home. During the summer, the militias attempted to destabilize East Timor as well by inserting several hundred fighters across the border. Two U.N. peacekeepers were killed. To date, no one has been arrested for either killing.

One hopeful note is that militia activities in East Timor have diminished significantly. Last summer, after the militias infiltrated East Timor and stepped up their attacks, the peacekeepers, minus two of their slain, fought back. That came about after the U.N. mission in East Timor clarified its rules of engagement to ensure U.N. soldiers could shoot first when threatened. The results were dramatic. Several militiamen were killed and the number of incursions fell. The message: Threaten U.N. peacekeepers and you will pay a heavy price.

The problem of the estimated 120,000 refugees in West Timor must also be addressed. Breaking militia control in the camps is critical. So is the return of the international community, which pulled out following the murders of the U.N. workers.

The Indonesian government claims the militias have already been disbanded. But the militias cannot be considered disbanded until their grip on the camps is truly broken, their weapons destroyed, their ability to infiltrate East Timor stopped and the perpetrators of violence brought to justice.

The way forward may be hard going, but it is clear. The Indonesian authorities must take the necessary steps.

An important place to start is to separate militia leaders and those intimidating the camps. A U.N. security assessment team should be allowed to visit West Timor as soon as possible to evaluate conditions on the ground regarding the return of the international community. Accurate information must be provided the remaining refugees through exchanges of visits, an end to misinformation campaigns and the free flow of information between the two communities. Existing mechanisms for consultation between the U.N. and the Indonesian government should be strengthened and supplemented. There must be more direct Indonesian-East Timorese dialogue.

The militia and refugee problems are inexorably linked to progress on the twin track of reconciliation and justice. The refugees will not return absent credible assurances of reconciliation. The East Timorese will not be willing to reconcile absent a process of credible and fair justice. Both must proceed as mutually reinforcing processes.

The status of justice is precarious. The U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor lacks the resources needed to prosecute those responsible for serious crimes. More than 50 people have been held without trial, some for more than a year. Others have been released back into society for lack of capacity to detain them.

One of the most urgent needs, therefore, is for the international community to assist the U.N. with basic law-and-order functions, providing, for example, judges, prosecutors and investigators. Such assistance could easily draw on the experience of the international community in the International War Crimes Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Once the people of East Timor feel that justice will be done, the prospects for real reconciliation will be enhanced significantly.

The Indonesian government must ensure that those responsible for the serious crimes of 1999 and the deaths of the U.N. personnel are brought to justice. More than a year has passed without a single conviction. A key militia leader, Eurico Guterres, and six others are in custody, but more progress is needed if confidence in the goal of justice is to emerge. The Indonesian parliament recently took the crucial step of passing special human rights court legislation. It should now move expeditiously to establish ad hoc tribunals and move cases forward.

The independence of East Timor can be a triumph -- not only for a people who have long struggled for freedom. It can be a testament to the U.N.'s ability to assist in such a difficult transition. And to Indonesia's willingness to work cooperatively and responsibly with the international community.

Much remains to be done on all sides. The international community will need to remain engaged now and for some time to come.

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