East Timor: UN investigation only a first step

By Pip Hinman

The decision by the United Nations to set up an international commission on human rights abuses in East Timor is welcome but doesn't go far enough, according to Abel Guterres of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT).

On September 27, after a three-day special session, the UN's 53-member Human Rights Commission voted overwhelmingly to authorise the UN secretary-general to set up a commission of inquiry to gather information on human rights violations in East Timor since January.

Speaking to Green Left Weekly after the announcement of the inquiry, Guterres said: "They really should investigate 24 years of Indonesian occupation from 1975 -- including the Dili massacre, which has never been investigated -- and try the war criminals. They need to investigate the lot, not pieces of it."

Guterres said that unless the inquiry was given the necessary resources to collect forensic evidence immediately, it would not be able to press the UN Security Council to set up a war crimes tribunal. Only this type of tribunal would have the mandate to try people responsible for human rights abuses in East Timor.

According to the September 29 Sydney Morning Herald, CNRT leader Leandro Isaac said that a war crimes tribunal was essential. He said that as further evidence of atrocities is uncovered by the Interfet forces, Xanana Gusmao's earlier offer of an amnesty for war criminals has been superseded. Isaac was reported to have said, "Peace without justice is rotten peace".

The UN resolution, which was initiated by Portugal and tabled by Finland on behalf of the European Union, passed with 32 votes for, 12 against and six abstentions. Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Sri Lanka and Sudan voted against. Cuba, Japan, Morocco, Republic of Korea, Senegal and Tunisia abstained.

The resolution condemned "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law" committed in East Timor. It called for investigations in East Timor by four UN special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killings, internally displaced persons, torture and violence against women, as well as by a working group on disappearances.

A ridiculous and out-of-date clause also called on the Indonesian government to "continue to implement its obligations under the May 5 agreement". It was this flawed agreement between Portugal, the UN and Indonesia which gave Indonesia the right to maintain "security" in East Timor before and during the August 30 ballot.

The commission's conclusions will be presented to the secretary-general, Security Council, 54th session of the General Assembly and 56th session of the Commission on Human Rights.

In an effort to accommodate Indonesia (which has repeatedly denied any government involvement in violence before or after August 30), the resolution, already watered down earlier, directed the international investigative panel to work with a fact-finding body already appointed by Indonesia's Human Rights Commission. It also stated that the commission should include "adequate representation of Asian experts".

This wording (paragraph 6) came after hours of debate in which Indonesia tried but failed to enlist support for its own national fact-finding mission with foreign observers.

Despite this compromise, Indonesia called for a separate vote to remove paragraph 6, but was defeated by 27 votes to 12, with 11 abstentions. It declared the commission "high-handed" and "intrusive", announced that it regarded the resolution as "non-binding" on Human Rights Commission members and warned that "it could well provoke a strong nationalist backlash in Indonesia".

The other countries which opposed paragraph 6 were Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cuba, India, Japan, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Russia and Sudan. The Sudanese representative, who had one of the most backward positions, stated that an international commission would not help and that Indonesia should establish its own.

Cuba's representative said his country was concerned about the violence in East Timor and that it supported self-determination for the East Timorese people. However, he argued, the final resolution "would not allow Indonesia to honour its commitment to the international community".

The London-based Indonesian Human Rights Campaign stated that the commission of inquiry should include independent experts from all over the world, especially including Asia. But it too warned that the commission's investigations would be hampered if there is any delay in sending forensic experts to East Timor. It added that Indonesia must not be allowed to use its influence with some Asian countries on the commission to protect Indonesian personnel from being tried for violating human rights.

Guterres said that it was mass pressure which had forced the UN to hold this special session (only the fourth in its 50-year history), and to decide on an investigation. It is essential, he added, that mass pressure be maintained to ensure that the Security Council authorises a war crimes tribunal. Without such pressure, Russia and China, both permanent members of the Security Council, will most likely vote against a tribunal.

Guterres said that Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas-HAM) must participate in the UN investigation. "It is new, but it has to be involved, as long as it is not infiltrated with people without integrity."

Human Rights Watch, based in Geneva, said, "Komnas-HAM has a well-deserved reputation for independence in Indonesia, but not in East Timor".

On April 21, following violence in Liquica and Dili in which several dozen people were killed, the Indonesian government announced the formation of the Commission on Peace and Stability, with Komnas-HAM as the lead agency. Komnas members repeatedly downplayed the extent of military involvement with the militias and aligned themselves with government officials against the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor.

A September 27 Human Rights Watch statement said: "East Timorese witnesses to human rights violations by the Indonesian army or army-backed militias are not likely to trust investigators seen as being linked to the Indonesian government. It is therefore critical that the international commission be seen as wholly independent of Komnas-HAM."

The International Federation for East Timor said that any UN investigation should be used to assess the magnitude of reparations paid to the people of East Timor, "not only by the government of Indonesia, but by all nations who stood by as the wheels of destruction continued to turn".

Joining the call for a broader inquiry into war crimes against the East Timorese, the Socialist Party of Timor issued a statement on September 18 which said that the definition of war criminals should include those institutions, individuals and other parties which obstructed, killed or terrorised humanitarian organisations seeking access to East Timorese refugees; armed, trained and controlled the militia and paramilitary; are responsible for the scorched-earth policy in East Timor; and have facilitated the supply of military equipment to the Indonesian army during its occupation of East Timor.

Under this definition, the governments of the United States, the UK and Australia should be called to account for their part in the genocide of the East Timorese people over the last 24 years.

[Pip Hinman is a member of the national secretariat of Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor.]