Global Policy Forum

Timor Leste: Time for Action


By Eduardo Gonzalez *

Jakarta Post
April 14, 2005

Six years ago, a militia group descended on Liquiga, a sleepy coastal town on the strategic road that links Dili, the capital of Timor Leste, with the western Indonesian part of Timor island. The militia was seeking to quash the pro-independence movement there ahead of a popular vote scheduled for August 1999 that would decide the future of Timor Leste. Fleeing the violence, residents took shelter in the local Catholic church where they were attacked by 2,000 militia members and Indonesian soldiers. Fifty-nine unarmed civilians were killed.

Horrendous as it was, the Liquiga massacre was not an extraordinary occurrence during the nearly 25-year Indonesian occupation of East Timor. A truth commission established by the UN in 2001 is still trying to determine the total number of victims, but estimates range from 100,000 to 200,000 people dead as a direct or indirect result of Indonesian rule. During the popular vote alone, approximately 1,400 civilians were killed, hundreds of women were raped and 200,000 people were forcibly displaced.

The international community condemned these violations and two commissions of inquiry -- one led by the UN and the other by Indonesia -- arrived at the same conclusions: the atrocities committed in East Timor in 1999 constituted crimes against humanity and war crimes, and the international community was responsible for prosecuting and punishing the perpetrators.

To date, not a single Indonesian has served a day in jail for crimes committed in East Timor. After 1999, the UN gave Indonesia an opportunity to try the perpetrators, but the ensuing trials were deeply flawed. Of about 100 alleged perpetrators named by the Indonesian commission of inquiry, only 16 were sent to trial by incompetent and politically motivated prosecutors. The trials -- including of those accused of the Liquiga massacre -- ended in acquittals or lenient sentences that were overturned upon review. The head of the Indonesian Army at the time, Gen. (ret) Wiranto, has never been prosecuted.

The Indonesian authorities also failed to transfer suspects or evidence to UN-supervised prosecutions in Timor Leste. Although scores of perpetrators were convicted in these trials, they were largely low-level militia members. Indonesian military leaders bearing the greatest responsibility remain at large, and some of them continue their repressive activities in Aceh and West Papua. UN prosecutions in Timor Leste are scheduled to end in May and there are no adequately trained Timorese judges to continue the pursuit of justice. To the dismay of victims, the Timor Leste government has prioritized good relations with Indonesia over achieving accountability for atrocious crimes.

Recently, the Indonesian and Timor Leste governments announced the formation of a bilateral Truth and Friendship Commission to address what their leaders refer to as "residual issues" and "allegations". But whereas other commissions have served justice by exposing wrongdoers, recommending prosecutions and reparations for victims, and issuing official apologies, this one cannot offer reparations and will grant amnesty to perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Victims' groups and human rights advocates were never consulted about this inquiry and have rejected it as little more than a whitewash to paper over impunity and further diplomatic relations at their expense.

In a last-ditch effort to address this failure of justice, the UN secretary-general has established a commission of experts that will assess the judicial processes conducted in Jakarta and Dili over the last six years and make recommendations on how to overcome impunity. The international community must do everything in its power to support this commission in its efforts to provide a complete account of the atrocities committed in 1999 and the subsequent failures of justice. The cycle of impunity must finally be broken. Justice for the East Timorese victims is not a "residual" issue to be dealt with by the leaders of the two countries alone, but a touchstone for the credibility of the UN and the international community, and for the strength of democracy in the region.

About the Author: Eduardo Gonzalez is a senior associate and head of the Indonesia and Timor-Leste programs at the International Center for Transitional Justice. He was also on the staff of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which completed its work in 2003.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the Ad-Hoc Court for East Timor
More Information on East Timor


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