16/07/2008 9:35:00 AM
Imagine the reaction if an inquiry assigned responsibility for the
Holocaust without mentioning Hitler, and focused only on the last few
months of World War II. Yet that is what the Truth and Friendship
Commission has tried to do in the case of East Timor. Established by
the governments of Indonesia and East Timor in March 2005, the
commission was prevented by its terms of reference from assigning any
responsibility to individuals, and focused only on the violence that
accompanied East Timor’s 1999 independence ballot. It released its
The product of delicate diplomatic compromise between newly
independent East Timor and its vastly larger neighbour and former
occupier, Indonesia, the commission was created as a way of avoiding
an international tribunal for Indonesian military personnel who
committed crimes against humanity during the 24-year occupation of East
By its own admission, the commission lacked the power to compel
witness testimony and demand documentary evidence. It could not
recommend prosecutions of any sort. It could do little more than
recommend amnesties. Unsurprisingly, the United Nations boycotted the
commission’s proceedings altogether, saying it did not condone
amnesties regarding war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
In Dili, several East Timorese participants in the commission
informed me that in the absence of international allies supporting a
war crimes tribunal they felt obliged to go along with the charade.
The commission’s proceedings soon descended into farce, with senior
Indonesian leaders and officials claiming that the atrocities were
everyone else’s fault but their own. As the commission concluded,
”their answers were often evasive, irrelevant, too general or
incomplete”. Embarrassed by the international scorn it received, the
commission has just recommended that no amnesties be given because
none of the perpetrators met the criteria of ”telling the complete
truth” and giving ”full cooperation”.
Despite its weaknesses, the commission has found that the Indonesian
military, the Indonesian civilian government and anti-independence
militias bore institutional responsibility for thousands of ”gross
human rights violations in the form of crimes against humanity”
including ”murder, rape, and other forms of sexual violence,
torture, illegal detention and forcible transfer and deportation”
against the East Timorese civilian population. Clearly, international
criticism has had an effect on the final report.
The East Timorese are receiving help from an unexpected quarter.
Every major Indonesian human rights group has come out in support of
justice for East Timor.
These campaigners consider the military officers who presided over
carnage in East Timor are a continuing threat to their own country’s
democratic transition. After all, these officers have gone on to
commit atrocities elsewhere in Indonesia. As Indonesia democratises,
others may join its human rights groups in calling for a war crimes
tribunal. Indonesia’s military personnel are likely to find that
their impunity is temporary indeed. Australian policymakers would do
well to take this looming reality into account.
Dr Fernandes is a senior lecturer with the University of NSW at the
Australian Defence Force Academy. He is the coordinator of the
Australian Coalition for Transitional Justice in East Timor.