Subject: Breaking The Spell of Impunity
Scoop [New Zealand]
Sunday, 10 August 2008, 11:45 am
Breaking The Spell of Impunity
By Maire Leadbetter, Indonesia Human Rights Committee
There is strong support for bringing to justice the Bosnian Serb leader
Radovan Karadzic for crimes against humanity, but Indonesia's grave
Timor-Leste crimes have a lower priority.
However, there has been a breakthrough of sorts, Indonesia has for the
first time accepted blame for the terrible violence that engulfed
Timor-Leste in 1999 before and after the independence referendum.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed his 'remorse'
when he accepted the report of the Truth and Friendship Commission set
up jointly by his Government and that of Timor-Leste. It documents
crimes including murder, rape, torture, illegal detention, and forced
The report, presented to the Indonesian and Timor-Leste Presidents in a
mid-July ceremony in Bali, says that pro-independence representatives
committed some crimes, such as 'illegal detentions' but that the
Indonesian authorities and their proxies were the primary perpetrators
of gross human rights violations and a systematic terror campaign.
Of course these conclusions are hardly news, since they reflect what
eyewitnesses reported at the time and the findings of subsequent United
Nations investigations. But this Commission was tipped to produce a
whitewash because of its controversial 'no prosecutions' mandate and it
was not endorsed by the UN. The hearings were light on victim evidence
and heavy on evidence from the Generals. During the hearings military
commanders seemed to get away with self-serving and unsubstantiated
accusations against UN officials, and Timorese witnesses were subjected
to hostile questioning from Indonesian commissioners.
Despite this stronger-than-expected report, it is not enough for the
Indonesia to accept institutional responsibility and turn the page. An
international tribunal is needed to bring the key perpetrators to
justice and to ensure accountability from the very top of the chain of
Meanwhile, impunity gnaws at the heart of both Timor-Leste and its
Indicted war criminals continue to lead influential public lives in
Indonesia. In 2004 an international judge in Timor-Leste issued a
warrant of arrest for General Wiranto who was in command of the
Indonesian military at the time of the 1999 terror campaign. The
warrant, which Indonesia ignored, was based on some 15,000 pages of
evidence. Indonesian human rights groups insist that the General should
face these charges, instead of calmly preparing to stand for President
Col. Burhanuddin Siagian is another who has been indicted for crimes
against humanity by the UN's Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) but has never
answered to his role in the 1999 Timor massacres. Last year, as regional
military commander in West Papua, he issued death threats against anyone
daring to demonstrate their support for Papuan independence.
The justice process has gone into reverse in Timor-Leste as the
leadership takes a 'forgive and forget' course that is sharply odds with
the views of surviving victims. President Jose Ramos Horta recently
bypassed the legal system to pardon and release several militia leaders
and is even advocating amnesty for the perpetrators of deadly violence
during the unrest of 2006.
Jose Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao have also set aside
the 2006 report of the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and
Reconciliation, which unlike this latest Commission was backed by the
United Nations and does consider all the events from 1975 to 1999. In
the human rights community this Report, known by its Portuguese name "Chega!"
("Enough!"), is regarded as a shining jewel of meticulous documentation.
Nearly 8,000 witnesses were interviewed in order to recreate and
document the events as faithfully and as even-handedly as possible.
There is also a careful analysis of the once secret documentation from
the 'club' of western nations that backed Indonesia. The conclusion is
that the alleged Indonesian military perpetrators should face justice,
and that the Western Governments, including New Zealand should apologise
and pay reparations.
So far the New Zealand Government has been doing its best to play
possum, but its 'wait and see what others do' stance may not be tenable
for much longer. There are the ghosts of the 'Balibo Five' to contend
On October 16 1975 five journalists from Britain, Australia and New
Zealand were killed as they reported on Indonesia's secret pre-invasion
incursions into what was then Portuguese Timor. The New Zealander was a
27 year old TV cameraman, Gary Cunningham, who had previously risked his
life while covering the Vietnam War.
Although there was little doubt that the men died because Indonesia
could not run the risk of having its cover blown, an official 'killed in
crossfire' version of events has prevailed over the years. Of the three
nations with journalists involved, New Zealand has always been the most
quiescent, and successive Ministers of Foreign Affairs have been given
'Yes, Minister' advice to say as little as possible and leave the
running to Australia.
But, late last year a Sydney inquest conducted by Coroner Dorelle Pinch
heard new witness testimony and mined the official documentation to
conclude that the Balibo Five were deliberately killed on the orders of
Commander Yunus Yosfiah. He and his accomplice, Special Forces soldier
Christoforus da Silva were almost certainly acting on orders from the
highest levels of the Indonesian military. The Australian Attorney
General has been asked to consider a war crimes prosecution under the
terms of the Geneva Conventions.
A Balibo movie with high profile Australian actors is currently being
shot in Darwin. In Britain Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Meg
Munn has met with relatives of one of the journalists and hinted that
Britain could launch legal action if necessary. New Zealand has said
little apart from that it is waiting to see what Australia and Britain
decide to do. As a signatory to the Geneva Conventions we have a moral
obligation to work to bring to justice individuals suspected of 'grave
As Mr Karadzic and others such as the key architects of the Cambodian
killing fields are coming to trial, it is time for a full scale
international tribunal for Timor-Leste. It is also time New Zealand
began to play its part in bringing this about.
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