Subject: Joseph Nevins: U.S. owes restitution to East Timor

Providence Journal

Joseph Nevins: U.S. owes restitution to East Timor

01:00 AM EST on Thursday, March 16, 2006


THE LOGIC of reparations for war-related crimes has become especially powerful in the aftermath of the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust, as a way to address both past and associated present injustices. Such thinking led the United Nations Security Council, with strong U.S. support, to impose a $52 billion reparations bill on Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government in 1991, after its invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

Like reasoning should now lead the United States to agree to pay restitution to East Timor, for supporting the mass killings and destruction in that country. This is the effective demand of an East Timorese commission of inquiry's report handed over last month to the United Nations.

The some 2,500 pages provide chilling detail on many of the worst atrocities committed during Indonesia's reign of terror in the former Portuguese colony. But most explosive is the truth commission's recommendation that Indonesia and its Western backers, such as the United States, provide reparations for their roles in East Timor's plight.

It was 30 years ago in December that Indonesia's military launched a full-scale invasion of East Timor. The war and subsequent occupation resulted in many tens of thousands of deaths, widespread rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls, and, in the waning days of Jakarta's presence, systematic destruction of the territory's buildings and infrastructure. Today, East Timor is one of the world's poorest countries.

Washington greatly enabled Indonesia's crimes in East Timor. Indeed, the truth-commission report characterizes U.S. political and military assistance as "fundamental" to the 1975 invasion and the occupation that endured until late 1999.

Declassified government documents reveal that Jakarta was so worried about how Washington would react to its aggression that Suharto, Indonesia's dictator, vetoed earlier plans to invade East Timor. Only after consulting Washington on multiple occasions -- and, most important, receiving the green light from President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger the day before the invasion -- did Suharto launch an all-out attack.

Over the almost 24 years of brutality that followed, U.S. Democratic and Republican administrations alike provided invaluable diplomatic cover and many billions of dollars' worth of weapons, military equipment and training, and economic aid to Jakarta.

Yet despite the systematic atrocities and the resulting hardships in now-independent East Timor, neither Indonesia nor the United States has acknowledged or apologized for their actions, never mind made amends.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi people have shelled out almost $20 billion, mostly to Kuwait's state oil company and government, and, shockingly, continue to pay, despite the end of Saddam's government.

Irrespective of the merits of forcing the Iraqi people to pay for the crimes of a dictatorial regime -- especially one long backed by Washington until the Kuwait invasion -- the U.N. reparations set an important precedent. It is one not easily ignored by a U.S. government that has supported the reparations regimen from the get-go, and has also championed the need to hold accountable direct perpetrators of gross crimes, as well as those complicit in them.

No less than President Bush has forcefully staked out such a position. Speaking to Congress nine days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush held the Afghan government co-responsible for that terrorism: "By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is committing murder."

Fortunately, unlike in the case of al-Qaida and its Taliban sponsor, no one advocates military attacks against those responsible for the crimes committed in East Timor -- only that they acknowledge their sins and pay reparations to a tiny country that they devastated.

Advocates of human rights and international law in the United States should take seriously the recommendation for reparations from East Timor's truth commission, and call upon Congress to hold hearings on the matter. Making restitution would provide critical long-term resources to help the East Timorese eliminate the pervasive, profound poverty that now afflicts their country, while setting a principled example for other Western governments to follow. And setting a precedent of accountability for U.S. foreign policy just might make policymakers in Washington think twice about backing state terror abroad again.

Joseph Nevins, an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College, is the author of A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (Cornell University Press, 2005).

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