Skip to main content

Unfinished Business: Justice for East Timor

Human Rights Watch today called for a new international initiative to press for justice for East Timor. The island nation on August 30 marks the first anniversary of the U.N.-supervised referendum in which voters overwhelmingly chose independence from Indonesia.

Indonesian military-backed militias responded to the defeat at the polls with such systematic vengeance that an estimated two-thirds of buildings and homes across East Timor were destroyed, an equal proportion of the population was displaced, and an estimated 1,000 people were killed. Not a single perpetrator has been brought to trial.

"The facts are not in serious dispute. Indonesian-backed thugs launched a campaign of terror against civilians and left destruction and death in their wake," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "For the sake of the East Timorese victims, it's time to insist on much closer international involvement in the justice effort."

The United Nations has recognized that it has a special obligation to see justice done for East Timor. The United Nations funded and was intimately involved in supervising the ballot that preceded the violence, local U.N. personnel were among the targets of the violence, and many U.N. staff witnessed atrocities. On January 31, 2000, an international commission of inquiry concluded that the systematic and large-scale nature of the crimes warranted the establishment of an international tribunal. To date, the U.N. Security Council has declined to establish such a tribunal, deferring instead to the Indonesia government's stated intention to bring those responsible to justice.

In a 25-page briefing paper issued today, Human Rights Watch gives a chronological blow-by-blow account of what has -- and what has not -- been accomplished to date. The international monitoring organization details continuing obstacles to effective prosecutions in Indonesia and sets forth detailed recommendations for how to move the justice effort forward.

Indonesia has announced it will name twenty or more suspects this week, but whether any of the most culpable leaders will be brought to justice is still very much in doubt. The briefing paper notes that even if competent and incorruptible judges could be found in Indonesia, there is no clear legal basis for prosecutions on anything except ordinary criminal charges. A constitutional amendment passed in Indonesia last week at the behest of the army makes it unlikely that anyone will face charges of war crimes or crimes against humanity, because they were not crimes under Indonesian law at the time they were committed. And a bill now being debated in the Indonesian parliament on a truth commission includes a provision by which those responsible for gross abuses could receive an amnesty in exchange for information. "Politically entrenched generals continue to maneuver to block prosecutions. With each step forward, some new obstacle to justice emerges," said Saunders.

In its recommendations, Human Rights Watch calls on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Security Council members, and Indonesia's donors to set forth specific benchmarks and a timetable for the Indonesian prosecutions. Annan had previously said he would "closely monitor progress" on the effort.

Human Rights Watch said the benchmarks should include a clear legal basis for the Indonesian court that is to try suspected perpetrators; credible personnel appointed as judges, prosecutors, and staff; a good witness protection program; a prohibition on amnesties, and clear jurisdiction over not just crimes already extant in the Indonesian Criminal Code but also over international crimes such as crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Watch called on international leaders to demand decisive action by Indonesia to disband pro-Indonesia militias operating out of Indonesian West Timor and put a stop armed incursions into East Timor. The group called on Indonesia's trading partners to reinstitute a ban on commercial military sales to Indonesia should the government fail to put an end to the incursions by September 27.

Human Rights Watch also urged increased resources for parallel prosecutions in U.N.-administered East Timor. The U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) now has a dedicated "Serious Crimes Investigations Unit" in place and has set up special international judicial panels.

If Indonesian prosecutions fail, the work of UNTAET's prosecution team will be critical. Even if the most wanted Indonesian military suspects never set foot on East Timorese soil, the files may eventually be transferred to an international tribunal and can form a basis for prosecutions in other countries on the model of the Pinochet case.

"In a best-case scenario, effective prosecutions in Indonesia could lead to benefits not only for East Timor but also for Indonesia, as the wall of impunity that has long protected Indonesian generals breaks down and the truth about covert military operations emerges," said Saunders. "But that assumes a serious prospect of prosecution and that just doesn't exist yet in Indonesia."

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country