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Assistant Secretary Taft Testimory On Timor

Population, Refugees, and Migration: Julia V. Taft, Remarks, UNHCR Executive Committee Session Meeting

Julia V. Taft, Assistant Secretary of State Bureau of Population, Refugees, and MigrationTestimony, Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights House International Relations Committee Washington, DC, September 30, 1999

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I am particularly honored and pleased to be able to appear before you today to discuss the situation in Timor and the role the U.S. Government should play in responding to the humanitarian crisis there.

Last week, I organized a Multinational Humanitarian Mission to East and West Timor comprising senior humanitarian officials from the U.K., Japan, Sweden, and Thailand. On Friday, we released our key findings.

East Timor

The mission was shocked at the level of widespread physical destruction of homes, commercial facilities, and public buildings in Dili. Seeing the damage wrought by weeks of wanton destruction is a compelling and sad commentary on the price that many people are forced to pay for their vote of independence. We were unable to move beyond Dili because of the security situation. However, subsequent UN assessment missions have found widespread damage throughout East Timor--Manatuto, which was previously home to 16,000 people, is completely destroyed and depopulated; estimates are that 60%-70% of the houses in the western region of East Timor are destroyed; the port of Suay was report to be 95% destroyed. Much of the damage was by fire, consistent with a "slash and burn" approach to the area.

With the deployment of the International Force for East Timor--INTERFET--under the able command of Australian Maj. Gen. Cosgrove and the withdrawal of Indonesian troops, the security situation is slowly but progressively improving. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who sought refuge in the hills of East Timor are now returning to Dili and elsewhere where security permits. UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and INTERFET are working together under very difficult circumstances in Dili to provide for immediate needs and anticipate future ones. And, slowly, relief efforts are beginning to extend beyond Dili.

Thousands of displaced persons, however, remain beyond relief. While we do not have evidence of starvation, these individuals clearly are in a vulnerable situation. WFP has been conducting food drops, with U.S. Government support. However, food drops can only reach a small proportion of these individuals. Relief agencies now plan to begin moving assistance by helicopter and truck to areas where security permits.

West Timor

We face different humanitarian challenges in West Timor. While the numbers are not precise, there may be as many as 230,000 displaced persons in camps located in West Timor as well as in churches, community facilities, and host families. These innocent people sought refuge--or were forced to leave East Timor--as a result of a brutal anti-independence campaign of intimidation and a scorched earth policy perpetrated by militia gangs which the Government of Indonesia did not or could not contain. In fact, there are credible reports that in many instances the militias were acting in concert with Indonesian Army forces.

Conditions in these makeshift camps in West Timor are very difficult. Civilian authorities are making efforts to provide food and there is little evidence of serious material needs. However, requirements for water, sanitation, and health services will intensify with the onset of the rainy season.

Most pressing, however, is the security situation of the displaced persons in West Timor. Human rights activists with whom we met in West Timor told us harrowing stories of militia running rampant in the camps at night; of Indonesian army and police forces standing by while armed thugs in the camps forcibly recruited young men, kidnapping others, and even murdering with impunity. While we could not verify these stories, it is reported that up to 230,000 people have been forced to live in such conditions in West Timor.

In every humanitarian crisis, host governments have the key role in providing for the security and safety of their citizens or those who seek refuge in their country. The Indonesian Government is aware of its obligations, and the civilian side appears to be trying to care for and provide for camp residents. We were accompanied on our trip to Timor by Minister of Social Welfare Justika Baharsjah, who is working hard to ensure that water, sanitation, food, and shelter are provided to those in need. In other respects, the government is also making the right commitments. They assured us, for example, that they would not resettle camp residents immediately in West Timor or to other islands, as some had suggested they would. They also told us (and repeated this on Jakarta television) that the government would permit and facilitate returns to East Timor for all who wished to return. Coordinating Minister Haryono told us that the government would begin, this week, a public information campaign explaining to all who fled from East Timor what their options would be to resettle permanently in Indonesia, to return to East Timor, or to stay temporarily in West Timor and return at some later date. Last week, President Habibie committed to allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees--UNHCR--access to West Timor and to set up field offices in Atambua and Kupang. A UNHCR advance team arrived in Kupang yesterday to begin setting up the office and UNHCR has traveled to Atambua. These are encouraging first steps, but the Government must continue to provide effective cooperation. In addition, we believe that the government should allow the International Committee of the Red Cross--ICRC--in West Timor to exercise fully its mandate and assume responsibility to initiate tracing procedures for reuniting families torn apart during the conflict.

Only time will tell whether the government can or will deliver on these commitments. In the meantime, conditions in the camps remain tenuous. The international humanitarian community should have full access to the camps and the government and Indonesian Army should ensure not only safe access by relief workers but also safety for the refugees. We have called upon the government to ensure the civilian character of the camps. Access to the camps by international organizations and NGOs is essential to convince local authorities of the seriousness with which the international community takes the welfare of these people and our willingness to provide urgently needed assistance. We also stand firm on ensuring that those who would violate the fundamental rights of camp residents know they cannot act in secret and with impunity.

As I expressed directly to my Indonesian hosts, and as Secretary Albright, Secretary Cohen, and our Ambassador in Jakarta have stressed repeatedly, the camps must be off-limits to armed militias of any and all political persuasions. The refugee population in the camps represents no threat to outside forces but organized groups within the camps do present a danger to fellow refugees.

We must also be prepared to facilitate the return of refugees to the east under the auspices of UNHCR. At present, it is not possible to determine how many may want to repatriate. We are hopeful that the Indonesian Government effort to encourage repatriation will be coordinated with UNHCR, and we will assist in funding safe passage back for those who wish to return. And we will make every effort to help returnees reestablish their livelihoods with time to plant in advance of the rainy season. Failure to succeed in the next few weeks will force people to remain in uncertain and insecure areas, at the mercy of the militias or in a state of complete dependence on international humanitarian aid for another year or more. We must not fail. For those desiring to stay in West Timor rather than repatriate to East Timor, we will assist their resettlement through NGOs.

In closing, let me say that our attention is clearly focused on the humanitarian needs of the displaced and affected populations in East and West Timor. We are participating in the multinational force, which is the international community's best hope for ending the humanitarian crisis, restoring security, and ensuring that the will of the East Timorese people prevails. We have already provided $10 million, primarily through USAID, to support humanitarian needs. Yesterday, the State Department announced a contribution from my Bureau of $5.1 million to support the humanitarian operations of UNHCR, ICRC, the World Food Program, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. We are making sure that other countries, including Asian nations, are actively engaged in pushing on access issues and providing assistance, as evidenced by the multidonor mission that we spearheaded. And, in concert with other donors, international and multilateral organizations, and NGOs, we expect to provide substantially more to address humanitarian needs in the future.

Thank you very much for the committee's interest in the region and support for U.S. Government humanitarian action.

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