East Timor reparations both symbolic and material

“James Dunn”
Tue, 18 Mar 2008 12:05:06 +1100
, “ETAN”

Lia Kent’s statement is an important one. I was one of those UNTAET advisers whose advice re reparations was ignored, in the mood of the time among the East Timorese. That atmosphere among the East Timorese leader was one of ‘look to the future’ and let the experiences of the past fade away in the spirit of forgiveness. So few seemed to realize that putting reparations on the agenda was not just about seeking material compensation for what had happened in East Timor. It was really about tracing responsibility for what had transpired, and exposing the culture behind their actions.
It was also about gaining formal recognition, internationally but especially in the Indonesian political establishment, of what hurt and material had been inflicted on the people of East Timor. Without that formal recogintion, there will always been attempts to cast doubt on the nature of their ordeal.

It was, of course, also about measures of justice that need to be formally recorded just to give the word its essential meaning in terms of human rights.
Unfortunately few attempts were made to discern the impact of what had transpired on the people of East Timor. They, many felt, should now be happy in the new spirit of liberation. However those of us who were tasked with indentifying past crimes against humanity were soon to learn that these injustices were very much alive in the minds of the population at large. Many times I was told that ‘ we want justice’ or even, as a bottom line, ‘ we just want those responsible for what happened to us to admit to their misdeeds and at least apoligize’ . Somehow Xanana and other Timorese leaders had, however, decided to put the past behind them, without fully understanding the consequences of this move.
And now the victims are still suffereing while the guilty ones are the kind if impunity that makes this aspect of the search for justice meaningless. James Dunn (2000-2001 UNTAET expert on crimes against humanity in East Timor)
—– Original Message —– From: “ETAN”
Sent: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 8:04 AM
Subject: East Timor reparations both symbolic and material


Eureka Street


East Timor reparations both symbolic and material

Lia Kent March 18, 2008

As a close observer of justice and reconciliation
issues in East Timor, I have watched with great
interest as the debates on ‘acknowledging the past’ unfold in Australia.

In many ways the two nations could not be more
different. East Timor, colonised for more than
400 years, is now one of the world’s newest
nations. Australia, a settler society, is one of its oldest democracies.

Yet Australia could learn much from East Timor
about the importance ­ and limitations ­ of
acknowledging a painful past. In particular, East
Timor’s experience suggests the significance of
both symbolic forms of acknowledgement and
material reparations to those who have experienced past injustices.

After independence, the East Timorese leadership
emphasised the need to ‘move on’. They shied away
from demanding reparations for abuses committed
during the Indonesian occupation, partly for
reasons of pragmatic international relations.
Then President Xanana Gusmao suggested the
population was best served by a focus on
practical issues: poverty reduction, electricity,
decent housing and medical care.

In Australia, the Howard Government also
expressed a preference for ‘practical’ forms of
assistance to indigenous communities, and a focus
on the future, rather than the past.

Against these ‘pragmatic’ responses have come
moves to ensure that both East Timorese victims
of violence and indigenous Australians receive
some form of official, public acknowledgement of their experiences.

From 2002, a number of East Timorese survivors
were able to participate in an independent
Commission for Reception, Truth and
Reconciliation (CAVR). While many welcomed the
opportunity to tell their stories to the nation,
there were widespread expectations that justice
and economic compensation would follow. Following
the release of the CAVR’s final report in 2005,
the political debate in Timor is now turning
toward the question of victims’ reparations.

Within Australia, Prime Minister Rudd’s recent
apology is a first step towards acknowledging the
wrongs committed against members of the Stolen
Generations. We should not be surprised if the
issue of compensation now also emerges as an
important focus for many indigenous Australians.

It is helpful to view questions of compensation
within a framework of ‘reparations’ for past
wrongs. Reparations can encompass material as
well as symbolic measures, and measures directed
to both individuals and communities.

Material reparations may take the form of
compensation, including payments of cash or
service packages, and provisions for health, education or housing.

Symbolic reparations may include official
apologies, the change of names of public spaces,
the establishment of days of commemoration, and
the creation of museums and parks dedicated to victims.

There is a strong relationship between
reparations and ‘justice’. The political theorist
Axel Honneth suggests that at the heart of
demands for justice is a craving for official
recognition of experiences of harm.

The idea of justice as recognition suggests that
acknowledgement of wrongdoing, in both symbolic
and material ways, is central to the restoration
of victims’ dignity and to the establishment of
relations based on equality and respect. It is on
the basis of acknowledgement that a new process
of relationship-building between the state and
victims can begin. In this sense, the Rudd
apology, the CAVR, and future discussions on
other forms of reparation such as compensation,
can be seen as aspects of a commitment to justice.

Like apologies, material reparations are
important for the recognition they provide to
victims. In very practical ways, they recognise
the ongoing consequences of injustice in victims’
everyday lives. While reparations can never bring
back the dead, or restore lost opportunities,
they can symbolise the official acknowledgement
of victims’ suffering and their inclusion as
equal citizens in a new political community. In
this sense, reparations are oriented towards the
building of a truly shared future.

Viewing reparations as a form of recognition also
means we should be wary of attempts to substitute
reparations for broader development programs.
Development and welfare programs do not offer the
same form of recognition to those who have been
harmed, and therefore are often perceived, quite
rightly, as programs that distribute goods which
victims have rights to as citizens and not necessarily as victims.

East Timor and Australia face similar challenges
in acknowledging and responding to past
injustices in order to build inclusive
communities. In both cases this process will be a
long one. What the East Timor experience suggests
is that for acknowledgement to have continuing
resonance it must act as an opening for new
conversations about reparations. Let us hope that
both the Rudd and Gusmao governments are open to
where these conversations may lead.

Lia Kent worked as a Human Rights Officer with
the United Nations Transitional Administration in
East Timor from 2000-2002. She is currently a PhD
Candidate at the University of Melbourne.


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