Subject: The UN in East Timor, Lessons for Iraq

RADICAL SOCIETY Vol. 30, Nos. 3-4 (2003) 01-02

ben terrall

THE UN IN EAST TIMOR lessons for iraq?

AS THE “COALITION OF THE WILLING” moved into Baghdad last spring, international observers began asking what lessons might be learned from other countries where the United Nations had overseen transitional governments. Given that East Timor’s emergence as the newest country of the twenty-first century was widely viewed as a success for the United Nations, it is no surprise that the small Asian nation’s journey to independence suddenly became news again. But in the rush to draw parallels and to reach obvious, politically safe conclusions, essential details have been ignored.

Most comparisons of the two countries describe differences between them—East Timor has a population of around 700,000, while Iraq is about fifteen times bigger geographically and has a population of 22 million. East Timorese society is more than 90 percent Catholic, Iraq includes Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Few mention that for more than two decades the vast majority of East Timorese wanted, and many actively campaigned for, UN intervention to end the brutal Indonesian military occupation of their homeland, while even most anti-Saddam Iraqis were opposed to the Bush administration’s invasion.

The prominent pro-Bush Iraqi groups were heavily financed by neoconservative U.S. foundations and had no real base in-country; hence their lack of touch with realities on the ground and the prediction that conquering troops would be “welcomed with open arms.”

On 7 December 1975, the Indonesian military launched a massive, brutal invasion of East Timor. Later that month and in April 1976, the UN Security Council passed resolutions condemning the invasion, but their implementation was blocked by the United States. Successive U.S. administrations placed the cooperation of the corporate-friendly Suharto regime (which rose to power in 1965-1966 via a U.S.-backed bloodbath in which Amnesty International estimated “many more than one million” Indonesians were killed) above peace and justice for the East Timorese. But partly because of those resolutions, and the hopes pinned to Nobel Peace Prizewinner José Ramos-Horta’s relentless lobbying on the international diplomatic front, East Timorese welcomed representatives of the international body when they arrived to supervise the long-awaited 1999 referendum on independence.

Given its role in enforcing the sanctions regime first imposed on Iraq in 1990, it is hardly surprising that Iraqis tend to feel differently about the United Nations. Former chief UN relief coordinator for Iraq Dennis Halliday, who resigned his post in protest against the sanctions (as did Halliday’s replacement, Hans von Sponek), told the London Guardian, “I had been instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals.”

The majority of the victims were children who died because of a lack of basic medicines and water purification technology. As Chris Toensing, editor of the respected quarterly Middle East Report, recently noted, “While few would dispute that the former regime’s policies exacerbated Iraqi economic woes, the bulk of the damage to Iraqi infrastructure was done by U.S. bombs in the 1991 Gulf War and the sanctions of the ensuing decade. In U.S. pronouncements, it is as if the sanctions never happened. The United States must share the blame for the dilapidation of Iraq’s electrical, educational and medical systems, and that’s why it should also share the expense of fixing it.”

Attacks on UN workers in East Timor by Indonesian military and police, and the militias they ran, escalated after the 30 August 1999 vote on independence. They culminated in the murder of nine East Timorese UN staff and a siege on the UN compound in Dili, the capital. Though Indonesian government propaganda claimed this violence was the result of internal strife, UN officials and anyone else who paid attention knew that the Indonesian military (TNI) occupation was so brutal—killing over one-third of the pre-invasion population—that opposition to independence and the UN ballot had to be systematically manufactured by the TNI. Eventually almost all UN employees were driven, along with hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, into the mountains or over the border into Indonesian-controlled West Timor. After an Australian-led international security force belatedly entered the territory in mid-September 1999, internationals began returning to work for the UN authority, which functioned as a transitional government until East Timor achieved full independence in May 2002. Except for sporadic cross-border attacks from militia camps in West Timor, the violence of the balloting period had ended.

Perhaps the most basic lesson to be learned from UN “nation building” in East Timor is the importance of having the local population on your side. This clearly cannot be accomplished via a war, with no end in sight, that targets civilians on a routine basis. As Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch commented, “It is a tragedy that U.S. soldiers have killed so many civilians in Baghdad. But it is really incredible that the U.S. military does not even count these deaths.” On 29 October 2003, the New York Times reported, “Since early September, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division have killed more than twenty civilians and Iraqi police officers in and around Falluja in incidents where the victims have put up little or no resistance, according to accounts from witnesses. American military officers have said the shootings were justified under American rules of engagement, but have provided scant details.” At a U.S. Army hospital in Balad, Iraq, which handles U.S. casualties from the “Sunni Triangle,” Lt. Col. Kim Keslung, an orthopedic surgeon, told the Wall Street Journal, “It was a mistake to discount the Iraqi resistance. If someone invaded Texas, we’d do the same thing.”

One of the more prominent victims of the bloody retaliation strikes on civilian or “soft targets” in Iraq was Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed by a car bomb attack at UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August. Appointed UN high commissioner for human rights in September 2002, Vieira de Mello was drafted to lead the UN operation in Iraq based on his extensive experience in various wartorn regions, especially East Timor.

Vieira de Mello was virtually the sole executive authority while serving as head of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor from December 1999 to May 2002. From all accounts, the Brazilian diplomat worked hard to realize a smooth transition to independence. Even East Timorese leaders and activists who clashed with him politically respected his dedication and willingness to listen to others. James Dunn, author of Timor: A People Betrayed and a sometime advisor to Vieira de Mello, said, “Sergio represented the hope of the United Nations…[he] had a very strong personal commitment to the United Nations as a whole and in particular its humanitarian aspects.”

Unfortunately, no matter how hard-working or well-intentioned some of its representatives may be, the United Nations puts political and economic priorities of wealthy nations and “Washington consensus” policies of the IMF and World Bank ahead of anything approaching truly sustainable development. The average international staffer was paid over thirty times more than the average East Timorese working for the United Nations, creating a twotier economy where several thousand East Timorese supported extended family networks (thanks to the IMF, unemployment hovered at around 80 percent) on pay inadequate for one person’s needs while UN “volunteers” from abroad received an average of $2,250 per month. Such inequities are inevitable when prioritizing open markets, which a high-ranking UN official called “the only remotely viable means of pulling billions of people out of the abject poverty in which they find themselves”; what that translates into in the real world is paying fat salaries to international consultants while only grudgingly doling out money for social programs. And though many UN employees were well meaning, hard working, and knew East Timor’s history, there were too many culturally insensitive careerists who resisted sharing decision-making powers with East Timorese or actually cultivating local “capacity building,” as much as that term was used with mantra-like frequency.

But in sharp contrast to the current Iraq situation, East Timorese knew that the United Nations would eventually be leaving, and the deeper anger at twenty-four years of occupation was, and still is, directed at the Indonesian military and its high-level operatives. The UN presence there was also the result of a clear international consensus, something obviously missing in Iraq.

In August 2003, Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Bill Clinton, wrote, “The United Nations in Iraq—as in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan—is serving America’s longterm interests.” Since attacks on its operations drove the United Nations from Baghdad, it is unclear what role the international body will play on the ground, but as Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote, “The U.S. government has made it perfectly clear that the United Nations may operate in Iraq only as a subcontractor.” As evidenced by the speed at which Bechtel, Halliburton, and their ilk have cornered lucrative occupation-related financial opportunities, and Iraq occupation head Paul Bremer’s Order 39, which opened up Iraqi industry to 100 percent foreign ownership (which legal experts argue is in violation of the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the 1949 Geneva Convention), Washington’s main concern in Iraq is Western corporate control of resources.

No matter how much the administration talks of “freedom and democracy,” their plans for Iraq boil down to what ace journalist Naomi Klein calls “occupation through outsourcing.”

On 22 January 2003, Klein wrote, “Under the current U.S. plan for Iraq, the transitional national assembly would hold onto power from June 30 until general elections are held no later than Dec. 31, 2005. That’s 17 leisurely months for a non-elected government to do what the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] could not legally do on its own: invite U.S. troops to stay indefinitely and turn Mr. Bremer’s capitalist dream into binding law.”

In the case of East Timor, “America’s long-term interests” dictate that cheap Indonesian labor, access to natural resources, and assistance in the so-called war on terror override justice for crimes against humanity. The Bush administration argues that the need for counterterrorist programs justifies getting rid of Congressional bans on aid for the TNI that the East Timor Action Network and other activist groups fought long and hard to achieve. Activist pressure on Congress has so far preserved bans on International Military Education Training (IMET) aid for Jakarta, but other training is going full steam ahead. One such project is the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service’s creation of Task Force 88, an “anti-terror” unit made up of troops from Indonesia’s notorious Mobile Brigade (Brimob) police. More than $12 million was spent to build a training facility south of Jakarta for this unit; twenty-four Indonesian police fired more than thirty thousand bullets in a six-week course taught by U.S. Special Forces veterans. Time Asia’s Jason Tedjasukmana wrote, “By the end of 2005, another $12 million will have gone toward forging a team of four hundred Indonesian investigators, explosives experts and snipers, armed with high-end American weaponry, including assault vehicles, Colt M-4 assault rifles, Armalite AR-10 sniper rifles and Remington 870 shotguns.” This “re-engagement” with the TNI, as it carries out operations in West Papua and Aceh all too similar to past scorched-earth campaigns in East Timor, is no more in our “long-term interests” than the corporate plundering of Iraq. Both will yield tremendous short-term profits for a relatively small group of elites while generating more worldwide hatred of the United States.

The joint UN-East Timor Serious Crimes Unit in Dili has indicted a number of high-ranking Indonesian officials for crimes against humanity committed in East Timor in 1999, including General Wiranto, TNI commander-in-chief during the September 1999 post-ballot destruction and a candidate in this year’s Indonesian presidential election. In all, 367 Indonesians and East Timorese have been indicted, of whom 280 remain at large in Indonesia; Jakarta refuses to extradite any of them to East Timor. Though two UN bodies called for an international tribunal on TNI crimes in East Timor, the Indonesian government was allowed to set up its own ad hoc tribunal on those atrocities, which, to nobody’s surprise, turned out to be an internationally recognized sham. The UN Security Council has yet to respond to this farcical court’s final wrist-slapping judgment, while the U.S. government’s official statement was predictably tepid. East Timorese civil society organizations continue to argue that only an international tribunal can bring meaningful justice, and East Timor’s prime minister Mari Alkatiri told Asia Times, “Crimes against humanity must be judged …and the international community has primary responsibility.”

Prospects for a true reckoning of war crimes committed in East Timor through an ad hoc international tribunal like the ones created for Rwanda and Yugoslavia are currently slim. They are not helped by the reality that, as the East Timor National Alliance for an International Tribunal notes, “The United States government supported the invasion and supplied weapons and military training to the Indonesian military, [and] gave economic support to the Indonesian government that was occupying East Timor.” As much as George W. Bush has made of Saddam Hussein “[facing] the justice he denied to millions,” there are obviously similar problems with that case. In the words of James Paul, formerly a writer and consultant with Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights and currently executive director of the Global Policy Forum, “A strong case can be made for U.S. government complicity with and support for Saddam, going all the way back to his early days with the Baathist assassination squad, through the bloody coups and on into the war against Iran and the terrible operations against the Kurds. The evidence for these things is well established by responsible scholars. So a trial of Saddam will be very cynical and the U.S. managers of the trial will have to face the challenge of avoiding these issues.” And as senior “evil doers” in Saddam’s security network, the Mukha-barat, are now in the pay of the United States and Britain, standards of justice are unlikely to be applied with any consistency even within Iraq.

In response to German chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s suggestion that the decision to bar Germany, France, Russia, and Canada from bidding on contracts in Iraq might violate international law, George W. Bush “joked,” “International law? I’d better call my lawyer” at a White House press conference. This arrogance is typical of the Bush administration and shows how much, for all their talk of democracy, they actually believe in that concept. As James Paul observed dryly, “Washington has brought us Guantánamo and the Patriot Act, so their commitment to the rule of law is not great.” In Iraq, as in East Timor, the current trajectory is fraught with uncertainty. But one thing that can be counted on in both countries is the unlikelihood of U.S. policies resulting in anything resembling true justice.


ben terrall, a San Francisco-based writer and activist, has worked with the East Timor Action Network for nine years. He is coeditor of Indonesia Alert (www.

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