Subject: Age: Robinson rides into storm over Suai massacre

The Age August 26, 2002

Robinson rides into storm over Suai massacre

By Jill Jolliffe Suai

Mary Robinson lays a wreath at Suai. PICTURE: ALICE MONIZ

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson rode into the eye of East Timor's human rights storm at the weekend when she visited the scene of the September, 1999, Suai church massacre.

Five Indonesian military officers were acquitted in a Jakarta court on August 15 of the killings of at least 27 civilians, including three priests, in this south-coast town, in what was a major test case for the credibility of the Indonesian court.

Before her arrival in East Timor, Mrs Robinson had publicly condemned the verdicts on behalf of the UN, but in Suai she faced the palpable anger of massacre survivors.

With the gentle, patient approach that has typified her term as commissioner, she listened well and referred frequently to the pain and anger of those present.

"I know . . . that you are very unhappy about the ad hoc tribunal in Indonesia, and I am very unhappy," she told them.

The former Irish president is on her last overseas trip as commissioner. The UN's former administrator in East Timor, Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, will be her replacement.

Her first stop in Suai was to lay wreaths for victims of the killings. She then went to a traditional roundhouse, built as a memorial, where community leaders gathered to question her and hear her explain the UN's position on the war crimes trials, which were set in motion by a Security Council resolution of January, 2000.

A small demonstration against the Jakarta verdicts met Mrs Robinson and she later listened to community leaders.

Alice Moniz Afonso spoke on behalf of a group of widows, saying that the UN's plan for a truth and reconciliation commission to heal divisions between lower-level militia perpetrators and the community was meaningless unless senior Indonesian officers involved were tried first by an international court. "I lost 14 relatives in the massacre," she said. "And only punishment of the killers can relieve my pain."

Mrs Robinson said that under the Security Council resolution, an international court could be established if the Jakarta court was deemed to have failed. However, she fell cautiously short of promising this measure, putting the ball back in East Timor's court.

"There is a new element," she said. "This country has a sovereign government and it must speak on behalf of East Timor. It will be stronger if there is one agreed view . . . then we can see what the response of the international community, including the Security Council, may be."

The suggestion that the new East Timorese Government must formally request an international court introduces a new complication to the controversy. Although grassroots opinion here appears to be fiercely in favour of this course, some senior leaders, including President Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, have opposed war crimes trials.

But foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta, who travelled with Mrs Robinson to Suai, said it was an evasion of UN responsibilities. "We are not going to allow any government, be it a member of the Security Council, be it Australia, to simply wash their hands and say this is a primary responsibility of the East Timorese." 

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