By Selwyn Manning – Scoop Co-Editor in Apia, Samoa.
The United States of America is backing New Zealand in a push to have a UN-backed international ‘truth commission’ established to investigate an Indonesian massacre committed in East Timor in 1999.
Indonesia’s Supreme Court last week freed four members of Indonesia's security forces, one of them a major-general who had been convicted by Indonesia’s Ad Hoc Tribunal. It also cut in half the 10-year sentence of militia leader Eurico Guterres.
Today in Apia, Phil Goff said the Indonesian court's decision was a blow to those seeking justice for the “terrible human rights abuses” that were committed in East Timor in 1999.
The Court also upheld earlier decisions of the Ad Hoc Tribunal to exonerate 10 others accused of crimes against humanity in East Timor. Right now, of the 18 original defendants standing trial for these crimes, only two have been sentenced, and both happen to be ethnic Timorese.
New Zealand’s view is that the failure of the Ad Hoc Tribunal “requires the establishment of an International Crimes Tribunal in this area, notwithstanding the opposition which might exist to this path being followed”, Phil Goff said.
There is much opposition within Indonesia to outside condemnation of the nation’s judicial affairs, particularly due to elections and a highly charged political campaign of nationalistic factions vying for political advantage. Goff agrees that these are not satisfactory times to be aggressively engaging with Indonesia on its internal affairs.
However, Goff decided to meet with Indonesia’s ambassador assigned to the Pacific islands Forum in Apia this morning where he issued notice of his intention to drive support for an international community-led crimes tribunal or a truth commission to investigate, prosecute, and bring to justice those who committed atrocities in East Timor in 1999.
“I met with the Indonesian delegation… to express New Zealand’s concern that notwithstanding the terrible devastation that the whole world witnessed in Timor Leste in 1999, notwithstanding the deaths of upwards of a thousand people, the ad-hoc human rights tribunals in Indonesia have found no Indonesian to be responsible for that violence,” Mr Goff said.
He said: “There has been no justice done, no body has been held to account apart from two East Timorese persons one of whom, the notorious Eurico Guterres, has of course had his sentence halved when everybody knows of the atrocities for which that man was responsible.”
The Indonesians noted Mr Goff’s views and cited that the Indonesia Government observed the independence of its judiciary in its pursuit of justice.
Goff later sought United States support in discussions with U.S. assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, James Kelly.
Within hours the United States endorsed the call issuing a statement critical of the Indonesian courts citing it as a “disappointing decision”, “seriously flawed” and “lacking credibility”. The United States, Scoop understands, will back a Truth Commission set up to examine atrocities committed in East Timor.
New Zealand also sought support from the United Nations which in turn issued a communiqué to its member nations seeking views on New Zealand’s move.
“The UN has been reaching out to its member countries to find a way through that may resolve this situation. I have had the chance to discuss (the issue) in other bilaterals with our post forum dialogue partners the concerns that we in New Zealand have had and indeed the concerns that they have had.
“This is a concern I am sure that the United States in particular shares with us. Both of us would like to see a truth commission so that those responsible for the devastation of East Timor can be brought to justice.
Scoop understands Australia’s foreign minister Alexander Downer has been reluctant to discuss either Truth Commission or International Crimes Tribunal options. Goff however intends to seek Australia’s view directly with Downer in a telephone conversation over the next few days.
“I think Australia, given the huge effort it has made post the devastation in East Timor, would be concerned that the system inside Indonesia has failed to find anybody responsible for what has happened. We all witnessed what happened in East Timor we all I think had expectations that those responsible could be bought to account. But that has not happened,” Phil Goff said.
Thousands of people were slaughtered in East Timor after a self-determination vote showed a vast majority of East Timorese wished to sever ties with Indonesia. Indonesia’s military had previously warned that if East Timorese voted in favour of self-determination then they would pay dearly.
And indeed they did.
The Indonesian-backed militia and the TNA rampaged through East Timor’s capital Dili slaughtering men, women and children. United Nations observers were held up within a UN compound in Dili while murder and carnage raged outside the compound’s gates.
In September 1999, over half the world’s nations were represented in Auckland City at an APEC meeting hosted by New Zealand.
Days before the leader’s summit began, news broke that Indonesian troops were storming through Dili, backing militia, and instigating a killing spree that spared no one.
Despite this, New Zealand’s then foreign minister Don McKinnon insisted that East Timor not be discussed at the APEC meetings.
Britain decided to deploy the HMS Glasgow (which was in port ain Singapore) to sail into Dili harbour as a signal to Indonesia to pull its military back from atrocity and under the control of its government in Jakarta.
It wasn’t until the United States’ secretary of state Madeleine Albright insisted that McKinnon ought to reconsider his position and Britain’s foreign secretary of that time, Robin Cook, arrived in Auckland to assist a unified push for a resolution to the crisis that McKinnon agreed to allow discussions to occur.
International leaders then gathered in the Auckland Town Hall and later emerged unified that Indonesia ought to accept a multinational force into East Timor as its military was either not able to or unwilling to establish law and order.
Indonesia was indignant to the demands, until Japan’s Prime Minister, the late Mr Obuchi, was influential in persuading Jakarta to accept foreign troops into East Timor.
The decision eventually saw a UN-led force, including Australia and New Zealand troops, deployed to East Timor. During peace keeping operations New Zealand and Australian lives were lost. Eventually peace in the region was realised, and in 2003 East Timor gained its hard-fought self-determination and became a sovereign nation.