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Congress will target rights abuse in Timor

Sydney Morning Herald, November 14, 1996 

By JENNIFER HEWETT, Herald Correspondent in Washington

Human rights in East Timor will be a focus of the new United States Congress, with the Republican Speaker, Mr Newt Gingrich, stressing that Congress has a clear obligation to hold hearings on the issue. The Speaker's stand reflects a new interest in Washington following revelations about campaign donations to the Democratic Party by the Riady family of Indonesia.

"I think there'll be hearings on human rights in East Timor," Mr Gingrich said. "We have a clear oversight obligation to look at concerns like that. And I think, where it's appropriate the Congress is going to exercise its oversight."

Mr Gingrich was speaking after a meeting of Republican congressional leaders at the White House with the re-elected President Bill Clinton.

The Republicans will be keen to examine whether the donations and lobbying from members of the Riady family or their former executive, Mr John Huang, had any influence on US policy towards Indonesia.

White House officials have repeatedly dismissed this claim, but the Congress will investigate every detail of US policy, and the US approach to human rights in East Timor will be one of the more controversial aspects.

The Republicans will have support from a key Democrat, Senator Russ Feingold, who has consistently pursued the issue of Timor rights and has long been an advocate of a tougher US line towards Indonesia.

He has not received much attention in the past, but he is now the Democratic sponsor of the campaign finance reform bill which Mr Clinton has pledged to support.

Senator Feingold will use his new prominence to draw attention to East Timor. He has already criticised US plans to sell F-16 fighter jets to the Soeharto Government, and Congressional approval for the sale may now prove more difficult to obtain.

Most Republicans have not been much interested in human rights in East Timor until the recent controversy.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two East Timorese activists last month attracted attention in the US, and the conjunction of this with the issue of campaign finance means East Timor has suddenly become contentious in US politics.

In 1993 the Clinton Administration changed course slightly and for the first time the US pressed for condemnation at a United Nations conference on human rights of repression by Indonesia in East Timor.

But the US has always wanted to maintain good trade and strategic relationships with the Indonesian Government.

The official position of Washington, repeated publicly and privately, is that the relationship with Jakarta is sound but will never reach its full potential until the human rights situation in the country improves.

This still makes the US view more publicly critical than that of the Australian Government under both Liberal and Labor parties. It is now likely that the US will become even more vocal on the issue.

Return to Congressional Action on East Timor: Statements, etc.

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