UN goes to water on Timor

Issue 

By Russell Anderson
and Sally Low

GENEVA — Late in the evening of March 4, while many delegates were out of the room, the chairperson of the 48th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights read out an unsigned statement of "deep concern" over the human rights situation in East Timor.

The statement "deplores" the violence in East Timor's capital, Dili, on November 12, but no blame is apportioned between the Indonesian armed forces who opened fire on an unarmed and peaceful demonstration and the demonstrators themselves.

For four weeks, East Timor had featured at commission proceedings: a welcome end to the last seven years of UN silence on this question. However, the "Consensus Declaration on the Human Rights situation in East Timor", drafted jointly by the Indonesian and Portuguese delegations, was a bitter disappointment for those who had hoped the Dili massacre would motivate stronger action.

Saskia Kouwenberg, who was in Dili on November 12, told the commission of a country "in which people seemed to fear daily for their well being and lives". In every town and hamlet, and even along otherwise deserted mountain roads, she said, the military presence was obvious. People not of Indonesian origin were too scared to be seen talking to her, but in private they repeatedly begged: "Please tell the world of our suffering. Send us help. Tell the United Nations they have to come and help us. We are desperate."

Human rights activists also drew attention to abuses in Indonesia. Helmi Fausi spoke of the regime's "security approach", which "means that everybody is suspect and the security forces will use every means possible to suppress unrest, revolt and rebellion ... It is this approach that forms the basis of the gross human rights violations occurring in Indonesia: disappearance, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and large-scale torture."

Spurred by international outrage over the massacre, Portugal had sponsored a resolution that: referred to the "unprovoked violence" of the Indonesian security forces on November 12; condemned the military's unjustified actions that caused the death of innocent and defenceless citizens; expressed deep concern at reports of continuing human rights violations and referred to previous UN resolutions regarding East Timor.

All 12 members of the European Community were among the 30 countries that had endorsed the resolution, and it seemed a majority of commission members would have voted for it.

After the commission had been sitting for nearly three weeks, however, the Portuguese delegation suddenly, without consultation, agreed to try for a compromise with the Indonesians. The result was the much ent.

Indonesia, along with delegates from Japan, Australia, Canada and the USA, had worked actively against the resolution and pushed for a statement which, in the hierarchy of UN measures, has far less significance than a resolution, explained Jose Ramos Horta, special representative of the National Council of Maubere [East Timorese] Resistance. It also meant no vote was recorded, which might have registered the widespread sentiment against Indonesia and pointed the finger at those who refuse to condemn them.

The statement praises the Indonesian government for setting up an internal inquiry into the massacre, for its stated intention to take disciplinary measures against some members of the armed forces and because UN representative Amos Wako was allowed to visit East Timor.

In fact, during Wako's one-day visit to Dili in February, security forces blanketed the city, and a number of people suspected of planning demonstrations had been arrested in advance. As well as company from members of the official investigation team, Wako had a constant shadow in the form of Brigadier General Theo Safei, head of operational command for the Indonesian army. He was dressed in civilian clothes and happened to spend the night in the hotel room next to Wako's.

Ramos Horta, who helped the Portuguese government draft the original resolution, unequivocally distanced himself from the final statement. In his view, Indonesia has been let off the hook and a major opportunity for East Timor lost. Portugal alone must accept responsibility for that.

Proposed military court proceedings against some members of the Indonesian armed forces are inadequate, he added. "If justice were to really be upheld, the least we could expect would be for Suharto to fire [Beni] Murdani, review the whole policy and begin to withdraw from East Timor. Anyone who believes that a military dictatorship such as exists in Indonesia will court-martial their own people is either dishonest and — like the western governments — wants to 'believe', or is stupid."

Embarrassed by the prospect of having to vote against or abstain on an EC-supported motion or weaken its record of strong support for the Indonesian dictatorship, the Australian government delegation actively opposed the resolution.

However, after a critical press statement by Ramos Horta led to some embarrassing questions directed at foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans, the Australians took a more behind-the-scenes role and allowed the Japanese delegation to do the public lobbying. Like Australia, Japan has strong economic interests in Indonesia and is keen to maintain a stable conservative regime in this strategically located country of nearly 180 million people.

Bill Barker, head of the Australian delegation, spread disinformation to mislead the negotiators and block the resolution. It would, argued ly prove destructive and be a disservice to liberal civilians in Indonesia.

Other observers were also struck by this tenacious attempt to protect the Indonesian dictatorship. "From my conversations with delegates, NGOs [non-government organisations] and prominent observers, it is clear Australia's blatant actions in sabotaging the resolution on East Timor are widely viewed with concern and, often, with disgust", remarked Judy Gunson, another Australian who attended the commission.

Despite this diplomatic setback, Ramos Horta is optimistic about the eventual outcome. "Time is on our side. No matter what they think in Jakarta, Indonesia has lost the political battle for East Timor. It's only a matter of a few more years before they have to make some kind of settlement like that in Eritrea."
[Russell Anderson witnessed the November 12 massacre in Dili and attended the whole of the commission's sitting.]

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