Global Policy Forum

Justice at a Crossroads in East Timor


By Jill Jolliffe

Asia Times
February 24, 2005

Justice is at the crossroads in East Timor, with the United Nations formally moving to check the impunity of those accused of war crimes committed during Indonesia's bloody withdrawal from the island in 1999 and Timorese and Indonesian leaders proposing that all such charges be dropped.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced in New York on Friday that he was appointing a commission of experts to review Timor war crimes prosecutions and assess why a 1999 Security Council resolution to try those accused of war crimes has failed. He named the three experts as Justice Prafullachandra Bhagwati of India, Professor Yozo Yokota of Japan and Shaista Shameem of Fiji.

It seemed symptomatic of the world's slide into apathy over Timor atrocities that the official UN statement said the experts would "recommend possible future action over the 1999 anti-independence violence in which dozens of people were killed and hundreds of thousands fled".

Dili records show that UN lawyers have investigated more than 1,400 homicides, not "dozens", since they arrived in 2000, and have indicted various Indonesians and Timorese over the deportation of around quarter of a million people, who did not "flee", but were forced from their homeland at gunpoint.

Hours before the UN leader's statement, a new director of the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) in Dili - set up under the 1999 Security Council resolution - was sworn in to office by Timorese President Xanana Gusmao, with the task of terminating the unit's work. Former Canadian minister Carl DeFaria has the job of handing over hundreds of case files to the East Timorese government and ending SCU business by May 20, when the current UN mission ends. He succeeded Nicholas Koumjian, who left recently to work in Kosovo.

Under three preceding directors, the SCU has convicted only 74 of 317 people indicted for the violence that racked East Timor after an overwhelming independence vote in August 1999. Most were Timorese militiamen, who are seen as taking the rap for their commanders. Jakarta refuses to act on arrest warrants issued for around 300 people at large in Indonesia. Former defense minister and presidential candidate General Wiranto is among the senior officers enjoying apparent immunity from prosecution.

Under the same UN resolution, Indonesia was to try its own citizens, but all except one of 18 perpetrators judged by a special ad hoc court were acquitted. However, as DeFaria pointed out to Asia Times Online, the dedicated work of the unit's investigators and jurists is there for possible future use. "Obviously, we would like to have all of the people who have been indicted brought to justice," he said. "It will be up to the Timorese government. I'm sure if they decide to pursue it they will have a lot of support from the international community."

President Gusmao chose his words carefully at DeFaria's investiture. He has been under fire by domestic critics, including the Catholic Church, for his December deal with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to set up a Truth and Friendship Commission, which would have a public truth-telling function but would drop charges against accused war criminals.

He praised the SCU's work as representing "more than just punitive justice; it endeavors to be a form of justice that reports historical truth for the victims". He referred guardedly to prosecutions, stressing instead "the establishment of truth and reparation to the victims" - values he is championing in the Indonesian accord.

President Gusmao and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta began work to establish the Truth and Friendship Commission late last year, supported by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. The decision to form the joint commission came after the UN Security Council expressed concern over Indonesia's failure to punish those responsible for the violence.

Ramos Horta traveled to New York with his Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirayuda in December to discuss the commission with Annan, who fell short of endorsing it. The United States was also cool to the proposal, while conceding that it could complement the work of the commission of experts.

In November, US Ambassador to the United Nations John Danforth had urged the Security Council to demand responsibility for the Timor bloodshed. "There must be accountability for the human-rights violations committed in East Timor," he asserted. "The international community has a responsibility to address the issue."

An Agence France-Presse report said both Wirayuda and Ramos Horta indicated during their visit that they hoped to avoid the new UN inquiry, with the Indonesian minister, saying the Truth and Friendship Commission was "meant as an alternative to the idea of establishing a commission of experts".

The Truth and Friendship Commission was formalized in Bali later in December between presidents Yudhoyono and Gusmao. As the deal was being cobbled together by politicians, East Timor's powerful Catholic Church weighed in on the argument. The Bishop of Dili, Dom Alberto Ricardo da Silva, criticized the culture of impunity, saying victims deserved justice. "If there was a crime, there has to be justice," he said, "It's always been the position of the Church."

Bishop da Silva, who replaced Nobel peace laureate Carlos Ximenes Belo last year, after his retirement from ill health, said his view represented "all" of the deeply Catholic East Timorese. "They say they're not satisfied ... they come to me constantly saying they want justice," he stated.

The 61-year-old cleric said he had difficulty understanding what Timorese politicians meant by reconciliation: "When a person steals, and they're not tried, where are we?" de Silva asked. "If you reconcile, does justice remain to be done, or is it not going to be done?" Both President Gusmao and Ramos Horta have since explained their proposal to church leaders, including Bishop da Silva, and consulted party leaders.

Criticism has also come from Timorese human-rights workers. Like the bishop, lawyer Aderito de Jesus Soares is puzzled. "It's demoralizing seeing Xanana, Mari Alkatiri and Ramos Horta asking them to forget," he said. "I agree with concern over border stability, but hugging all these generals doesn't make any sense to me." He feels deceived: "Justice and human rights are the values we fought for during 24 years, and suddenly we see them betray all those principles."

Annan has written to the presidents of both nations asking for their cooperation with the commission of experts, and further suggested that its work "could complement that of the Truth and Friendship Commission". Observers in Dili believe that it will be difficult for the UN to revive prosecutions with so little enthusiasm being expressed by Timorese leaders. Judging by the UN's factual errors in describing Timor's history, it doesn't care much either.

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


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