Subject: IHT: There Must Be Accountability for E. Timor's Ordeal: Mary Robinson
Date: Sat, 25 Sep 1999 08:47:44 -0400

International Herald Tribune Monday, September 20, 1999

There Must Be Accountability for East Timor's Ordeal

By Mary Robinson International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK - The writer is the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

The awful abuses committed in East Timor have shocked the world, and rightly so, since it would be hard to conceive of a more blatant assault on the rights of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

The murders, maimings, rapes and countless other atrocities committed by the militias in East Timor with the involvement of elements of the Indonesian security forces were especially repugnant because they came in the aftermath of the freely expressed wishes of the East Timorese people about their political future.

I saw evidence of a well-planned and systematic policy of killings, displacement, destruction of property and intimidation.

There must be accountability for the grave violations committed in East Timor. My recommendation is the establishment of an international commission of inquiry to gather and analyze evidence of the events that have taken place.

What happened in East Timor is a graphic example of the plight of civilians in conflict situations. East Timor is just the latest example. In the former Yugoslavia, I met women and girls who had been sexually assaulted, raped and forced into sexual slavery.

In Sierra Leone, I met children whose arms or legs had been brutally cut off during the civil war. I listened to accounts of children being abducted by rebels and sent to training centers or directly to the battlefront. Children were forced to attack their own villages and families and commit the most horrendous atrocities. Many of these child soldiers have been killed, while others were maimed and psychologically scarred for life.

In Colombia and Cambodia, human rights defenders vividly described the climate of violence in which they were carrying on their activities at great personal risk. Reports from Angola tell how rebels provoked a mass movement of displaced persons desperate to reach the relatively safe haven of provincial capitals.

The collapse of superpower rivalry after the end of the Cold War was expected to lead to a reduction in conflict. But the decline in interstate fighting has been more than made up for in the growth of vicious internal conflicts, often unpredictable and volatile. These conflicts drag on for years without settlement or flare up afresh when peace seems to be at hand.

The village has become the battlefield and the civilian population the primary target. Girls and women are routinely subjected to sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Children are recruited and kidnapped to become child soldiers, forced to give violent expression to the hatreds of adults.

My own experiences as UN high commissioner for human rights bring home the reality: Civilians are no longer just victims of war - today they are regarded as instruments of war. Starving, terrorizing, murdering, raping civilians - all that is seen as legitimate.

Sex is no defense, nor is age; indeed, women, children and the elderly are often at greatest risk. That is a strange, terrible state of affairs in the year after we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Conflicts almost always lead to massive human rights violations. But they erupt because human rights are violated due to oppression, inequality, discrimination and poverty. These conditions are exacerbated when the state is too weak or unable to address them efficiently.

Human rights violations are thus both a consequence of and a contributing factor to instability and further conflict.

As a result of globalization and increasing interdependence between states, conflicts which are essentially internal often have spillover effects beyond national borders.

The first need today is not that we write new laws, but that we implement what already exists - in the field, close to the victims and where it really matters. All governments must ratify all of the international instruments in the areas of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, withdraw reservations and, most importantly, comply fully with their provisions.

Could we not also take the concrete step of raising the minimum age for participation in hostilities to 18 years?

A serious issue which must be addressed is accountability. We are increasingly being faced with the dilemma of having to stop atrocities from being committed and seeking avenues for the peaceful settlement of conflicts, while needing to hold accountable and punish the perpetrators of human rights violations.

To grant amnesty to the authors of the most atrocious crimes for the sake of peace and reconciliation may be tempting. But it contradicts the purpose and principles of the UN Charter, as well as internationally observed principles and standards.

The United Nations Security Council is to be commended for establishing two ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

I warmly welcome the adoption of the statute of the International Criminal Court providing jurisdiction over the three core crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. We must move forward now and ensure that our collective support for setting up an effective International Criminal Court, will, through the speedy ratification of its statute, be a significant milestone in the struggle to strengthen respect for human rights and humanitarian and refugee law.

But the best protection for civilians in armed conflict is prevention. If we address the root causes of conflict and seek to defuse tensions, the atrocities and violations of fundamental rights committed during armed conflict can be prevented.

The major building blocks for peace-building and reconciliation are good governance, the rule of law, respect for human rights, a strong civil society, and institutions which can guarantee an environment conducive to stability and peace.

This comment was adapted by the International Herald Tribune from a statement to the UN Security Council in New York this past Thursday concerning the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

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