Global Policy Forum

UN Pressures Jakarta Over East Timor Trials


By John Aglionby

June 29, 2005

Indonesian security forces and local militia leaders responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor in 1999 should face an international tribunal if Jakarta does not prosecute them effectively, a UN panel of legal experts has recommended. A widely awaited report seen by the Guardian controversially demands that Jakarta be given six months to conduct these prosecutions under international supervision. If it does not, the report recommends that the UN Security Council create an international criminal tribunal in a third state or refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. In some cases this would mean re-opening cases already dealt with by an ad hoc tribunal, about which the panel of UN experts is scathing.

Only 21 people were indicted and all but one Timorese civilian were either acquitted or freed on appeal. These prosecutions, the report concludes, were "manifestly inadequate, primarily due to a lack of commitment on the part of the prosecution". "The failure to investigate and prosecute the defendants in a credible manner has not achieved accountability of those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations," it said. "Many aspects of the ad hoc judicial process reveal scant respect for, or conformity to, relevant international standards."

The 160-page document suggests Indonesia be given another chance to prosecute members of the military, police and militia suspected of killing approximately 1,500 East Timorese civilians and forcibly relocating 250,000 others. The violence, which was designed but failed to disrupt East Timor's independence referendum in August 1999, ended after the intervention of thousands of foreign troops, some of whom stayed until a couple of months ago. The fledgling government of East Timor does not escape criticism. Although 391 people have been indicted through a UN-run unit, authorities in the capital Dili have not forwarded to Interpol the arrest warrants for the most prominent indictees - such as former defence minister General Wiranto.

The report, which was commissioned last February, has been received by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, who has forwarded it to Security Council members, a spokesman for Mr Annan said yesterday. It is likely the Security Council will discuss the report sometime next month. Indonesia yesterday dismissed the suggestion that the cases be reopened as "preposterous". "That should only happen in extremely exceptional circumstances where there is incapacity or unwillingness on the part of the relevant government," a foreign ministry spokesman, Marty Natalegawa, told the Guardian. "This was clearly not the case with us. [The tribunal] might have been imperfect, but it was there." East Timor's government has also said it does not favour further trials, despite demands for justice from much of civil society. The two nations are instead establishing a truth and friendship commission. The terms of reference have been agreed, but Mr Natalegawa said yesterday there was no time frame for when it would start work. The UN experts praised the commission for offering "appropriate avenues" to reach reconciliation, but stressed there were elements which "contradict international standards on denial of impunity for serious crimes".

Human rights groups, however, strongly welcomed the report. "We agree with the UN's commission of experts that continued strong international involvement is essential to ensure that impunity does not prevail for the brutal crimes of Indonesia's security forces in East Timor," said John Miller of the New York-based East Timor and Indonesia Action Network. "For the past five years, the Indonesian government has taken every opportunity to obstruct justice. We are sceptical that Indonesia will in the near term hold credible trials or engage cooperatively with a continued serious crimes process in East Timor."

It is unclear what action the Security Council might recommend, as diplomats say many nations are unenthusiastic about antagonising Jakarta. "It's a tough situation that will have to be handled delicately," said a western diplomat working on East Timor. "I don't think we're going to see anything move very fast on this."

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


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