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Breaking the spell of impunity

(from Maire Leadbeater

Indonesia Human Rights Committee

Breaking the spell of impunity

By Maire Leadbetter

There is strong support for bringing to justice the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for crimes against humanity, but Indonesia's grave Timor-Leste crimes have a lower priority.

However, there has been a breakthrough of sorts, Indonesia has for the first time accepted blame for the terrible violence that engulfed Timor-Leste in 1999 before and after the independence referendum. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed his 'remorse' when he accepted the report of the Truth and Friendship Commission set up jointly by his Government and that of Timor-Leste. It documents crimes including murder, rape, torture, illegal detention, and forced mass deportations.

The report, presented to the Indonesian and Timor-Leste Presidents in a mid-July ceremony in Bali, says that pro-independence representatives committed some crimes, such as 'illegal detentions' but that the Indonesian authorities and their proxies were the primary perpetrators of gross human rights violations and a systematic terror campaign.

Of course these conclusions are hardly news, since they reflect what eyewitnesses reported at the time and the findings of subsequent United Nations investigations. But this Commission was tipped to produce a whitewash because of its controversial 'no prosecutions' mandate and it was not endorsed by the UN. The hearings were light on victim evidence and heavy on evidence from the Generals. During the hearings military commanders seemed to get away with self-serving and unsubstantiated accusations against UN officials, and Timorese witnesses were subjected to hostile questioning from Indonesian commissioners.

Despite this stronger-than-expected report, it is not enough for the Indonesia to accept institutional responsibility and turn the page. An international tribunal is needed to bring the key perpetrators to justice and to ensure accountability from the very top of the chain of command.

Meanwhile, impunity gnaws at the heart of both Timor-Leste and its former oppressor.

Indicted war criminals continue to lead influential public lives in Indonesia. In 2004 an international judge in Timor-Leste issued a warrant of arrest for General Wiranto who was in command of the Indonesian military at the time of the 1999 terror campaign. The warrant, which Indonesia ignored, was based on some 15,000 pages of evidence. Indonesian human rights groups insist that the General should face these charges, instead of calmly preparing to stand for President next year.

Col. Burhanuddin Siagian is another who has been indicted for crimes against humanity by the UN's Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) but has never answered to his role in the 1999 Timor massacres. Last year, as regional military commander in West Papua, he issued death threats against anyone daring to demonstrate their support for Papuan independence.

The justice process has gone into reverse in Timor-Leste as the leadership takes a 'forgive and forget' course that is sharply odds with the views of surviving victims. President Jose Ramos Horta recently bypassed the legal system to pardon and release several militia leaders and is even advocating amnesty for the perpetrators of deadly violence during the unrest of 2006.

Jose Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao have also set aside the 2006 report of the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, which unlike this latest Commission was backed by the United Nations and does consider all the events from 1975 to 1999. In the human rights community this Report, known by its Portuguese name "Chega!" ("Enough!"), is regarded as a shining jewel of meticulous documentation. Nearly 8,000 witnesses were interviewed in order to recreate and document the events as faithfully and as even-handedly as possible. There is also a careful analysis of the once secret documentation from the 'club' of western nations that backed Indonesia. The conclusion is that the alleged Indonesian military perpetrators should face justice, and that the Western Governments, including New Zealand should apologise and pay reparations.

So far the New Zealand Government has been doing its best to play possum, but its 'wait and see what others do' stance may not be tenable for much longer. There are the ghosts of the 'Balibo Five' to contend with.

On October 16 1975 five journalists from Britain, Australia and New Zealand were killed as they reported on Indonesia's secret pre-invasion incursions into what was then Portuguese Timor. The New Zealander was a 27 year old TV cameraman, Gary Cunningham, who had previously risked his life while covering the Vietnam War.

Although there was little doubt that the men died because Indonesia could not run the risk of having its cover blown, an official 'killed in crossfire' version of events has prevailed over the years. Of the three nations with journalists involved, New Zealand has always been the most quiescent, and successive Ministers of Foreign Affairs have been given 'Yes, Minister' advice to say as little as possible and leave the running to Australia.

But, late last year a Sydney inquest conducted by Coroner Dorelle Pinch heard new witness testimony and mined the official documentation to conclude that the Balibo Five were deliberately killed on the orders of Commander Yunus Yosfiah. He and his accomplice, Special Forces soldier Christoforus da Silva were almost certainly acting on orders from the highest levels of the Indonesian military. The Australian Attorney General has been asked to consider a war crimes prosecution under the terms of the Geneva Conventions.

A Balibo movie with high profile Australian actors is currently being shot in Darwin. In Britain Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Meg Munn has met with relatives of one of the journalists and hinted that Britain could launch legal action if necessary. New Zealand has said little apart from that it is waiting to see what Australia and Britain decide to do. As a signatory to the Geneva Conventions we have a moral obligation to work to bring to justice individuals suspected of 'grave breaches'.

As Mr Karadzic and others such as the key architects of the Cambodian killing fields are coming to trial, it is time for a full scale international tribunal for Timor-Leste. It is also time New Zealand began to play its part in bringing this about.

ends


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