|Subject: JP: Thirty-year wait for justice
for Timor Leste
December 10, 2005
Thirty-year wait for justice for Timor Leste
Adirito de Jesus Soares, Dili
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, with the people of East Timor organizing different activities to commemorate this historic moment. There was a public debate on justice for victims, a long march in the capital, the launching of a documentary film and the laying of wreaths and flowers around Dili harbor, where many innocent people were killed during the invasion.
Thirty years ago on Dec. 7, bombs, gunfire and troops rained down on this backwater capital of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. The Indonesian invasion led to untold casualties, killings, rapes and other atrocities over the next 24 years. The remains of many of the victims, beloved by their families, to this day have never been found.
The invasion and subsequent occupation was supported by Indonesia's powerful allies, mostly western countries, including Australia and Britain. Then U.S. president Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, signaled their approval while in Jakarta a day before the invasion.
Today, Saddam Hussein is on trial in Iraq and perpetrators of crimes against humanity in several countries have been brought before the UN's ad hoc tribunals. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court are investigating the leaders of the Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army. Meanwhile, the Indonesian generals who organized and committed serious crimes against humanity in East Timor remain free. Why should there be such discrimination in the implementation of justice?
On Nov. 12, 1991, the world awakened to the plight of East Timor, when hundreds of unarmed East Timorese students were gunned down by the Indonesian military during a peaceful protest at Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. This was just one case among many in a long list of terrible atrocities committed by the Indonesian military in East Timor.
Like the Santa Cruz massacre, many of the crimes committed by the Indonesia military during its occupation of East Timor are well-documented. A recent report by the UN Commission of Experts (COE) made a strong case for an international role in prosecuting the crimes against the people of East Timor. The COE report was released at a time when, unfortunately, the UN seems unwilling to take concerted action to bring to justice key perpetrators. It would be regrettable if the very robust recommendations of the COE -- including its call to establish an international tribunal if other efforts fail -- suffered the same fate as previous reports now gathering dust at the UN.
Meanwhile, the governments of East Timor and Indonesia have conspired to bypass the whole issue of justice. Their joint Truth and Friendship Commission has been strongly criticized as more likely to bury the issue and pave the way for impunity.
By contrast, East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), a body established by the UN three years ago, recently handed over its report. It contains strong recommendations pertaining to justice and reparations for victims.
Faced with the CAVR report, the president of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao, first expressed his strong objection to the recommendations. The president is now arguing that the report, especially its recommendations, could harm the relationship with the Indonesian government. He has cited one recommendation, that the international community bring perpetrators to a credible court. The report also recommends that the Indonesian government pay reparations. This stance by East Timor's president shows the subservient attitude of the East Timor government toward its former colonizer. The government's attitude has also been roundly criticized by civil society, both within East Timor and internationally.
Progress toward justice lies squarely in the hands of the UN. But as it has shown repeatedly, the UN acts slowly in responding to crises of humanity, whether in attempting to prevent them or to punish people after the fact. However, fighting against impunity, as enshrined in its various international documents, remains one of the main goals of the UN. Why is it that Saddam Hussein can be tried, Milosevic can be tried, the International Criminal Court at the Hague is now indicting the leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army and perhaps other leaders who committed serious crimes, yet the Indonesian generals who were involved in one of the darkest chapters of human history walk free?
The UN must take prompt action to bring these Indonesian perpetrators to justice. Otherwise, the Indonesian government will face an insurmountable barrier in rebuilding the rule of law and establishing democracy in its own country. Continued impunity could also lead to border incursions into East Timor by rogue Indonesian military elements. Should East Timorese victims never see justice, the UN itself will become a victim of its own hollow rhetoric. It can avoid that fate by implementing the recommendations of its own Commission of Experts.
The writer, a human rights lawyer, lecturer and former member of East Timor's National Parliament, is based in Dili, East Timor.