Unanswered questions on East Timor's transition

November 3, 1999

By Jon Land

On October 25, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution adopting the proposal by Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the creation of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

It is expected that UNTAET will formally take over from the International Force for East Timor (Interfet) within the next two to three months. Annan told reporters, "We will establish the mission as quickly as we can and eventually take over from the Interfet forces on the ground".

Full details of Annan's proposal have yet to be made public. Negotiations on the transition process are under way between representatives of the UN, Interfet and National Council of East Timorese Resistance (CNRT).

Mario Carrascalao, a former governor of East Timor and now part of the transitional council established by the CNRT, told reporters in Darwin, "What is our real concern is what will be the authority's [UNTAET] relationship with the CNRT — there are no details".

The Security Council resolution states that UNTAET will exercise all legislative and executive authority, including the administration of justice, and will have a military component of up to 8950 troops, 200 military observers and 1640 civilian police.

UNTAET will be responsible for developing civil and social services and coordinating the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The running costs for UNTAET, the largest UN mission in five years, are expected to be as high as US$1 billion in the first year of operation.

The UN has launched a special appeal to raise US$199 million for humanitarian aid needed in East Timor over the next nine months. A spokesperson for the Office for Coordinating Humanitarian Assistance stated, "Rarely has a short crisis resulted in such extensive damage to such a large percentage of the total population".

UNTAET and the special appeal are to be funded through pledges and donations from member states. Since the October 25 Security Council resolution, the Howard government has made no firm financial commitment to UNTAET operations or the humanitarian appeal. Rather, Howard has stated that he would rather impose a levy on taxpayers to cover the expense of having Australian troops in Interfet.

The situation of the refugees, especially those still being held hostage in West Timor in militia-controlled camps, is now the major concern. ABC radio reported on October 28 that the UN and aid agencies had access to only 50,000 of the approximately 240,000 refugees in the camps.

Information on conditions in the camps is limited. Media teams are usually prevented by militias or Indonesian authorities from gaining access and talking freely to the refugees. What is known is that the demoralised militia thugs are continuing to intimidate, kill and rape refugees.

A report on a camp located at Atambua in the October 28 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review stated, "... fear hangs over the place ... Armed men continue to patrol the alleys. They are the only ones willing to speak."

An investigation by the Indonesian-based National Commission for the Protection of Children, conducted in six camps across West Timor from October 11 to 14, found that at least 312 East Timorese babies had died in the camps and that 11,892 are ill and suffering from malnutrition. The investigators noted that 60% of the refugees are below the age of 14 and that they had found very few people aged between 16 and 30 in the camps.

Intimidation from the militias, particularly those still active in the border regions, is preventing the free movement of refugees back to East Timor.

Thousands of refugees have been terrified into accepting the "offer" of being resettled elsewhere. At least 2000 have been sent to Irian Jaya (West Papua). The UN humanitarian coordinator in East Timor, Ross Mountain, stated in a press briefing on October 26, "We expect about 125,000 to return, down from our estimate of 150,000".

Mountain said this estimate was based on the lack of information refugees have on the situation in East Timor (so they are still too afraid to return) and upon the assumption that "there could be a significant number of people who may wish not to come back". Such a claim is difficult to substantiate, given that the UN has been restricted from contacting the vast bulk of the refugees.

Fortunately, the rate of repatriation of refugees from West Timor has increased in recent weeks; up to five daily flights and two passenger ferries are operating between Kupang and Dili. By the end of October, about 30,000 refugees had returned. The UN hopes to repatriate at least 80,000 in the next three months.

Another concern is the claim by UN and Interfet representatives that there is no evidence of mass killings. This claim was based on the fact that, up until October 29, only 99 bodies had been discovered by Interfet and that the missing population is believed to be in refugee camps in West Timor or in hiding throughout East Timor.

Yet neither Interfet nor the UN High Commission for Refugees have been able to establish the number of people in hiding. And while Interfet personnel and UN civilian police have been collecting some evidence on atrocities they lack the necessary resources to compile accurate forensic data.

East Timorese students have established their own human rights commission to investigate the killings and human rights abuses and have identified at least 300 bodies or remains. They, along with human rights activists, are increasingly concerned over the failure of the UN to begin proper investigations (announced by the UN Human Rights Commission in September) into the human rights abuses which took place across East Timor after September 4.

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