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East Timor needs justice before reconciliation


'East Timor' by Chris JohnstonWe go to great lengths to commemorate the bloody conflicts that occur frequently in our history. For good reason. Remembering the violence that followed East Timor's independence vote ten years ago could indeed be the key to the country's stable future. If accompanied by the delivery of justice for crimes committed, it could lead young East Timorese to use peaceful means — rather than violence — to settle differences.

East Timor's leaders have tended to fix their minds on economic and social development, without firm acceptance that effective progress is only likely to occur in a climate in which justice has been delivered for past crimes. The reasoning has been that East Timor remains one of the world's poorest countries, and feeding the population would be a better use of scarce funds than paying for tribunals.

Early in his term, former President Xanana Gusmao pushed for reconciliation, as Nelson Mandela had done in South Africa. He was opposed by the Catholic Church and others, who insisted on the priority of justice. Yesterday current President Jose Ramos Horta declared that a reconciliation tribunal would not be set up.

Recently The Economist observed that a culture of amnesty prevails in the country, and there is little evidence that it has helped stability. 'On the contrary, Timor-Leste has seen gang warfare, a mutiny by part of the army, and an assassination attempt on Mr Ramos-Horta.'

Last week's Amnesty International report said policies aimed at reconciliation had 'demoralised victims and not delivered them justice'. The London-based Catholic advocacy organisation Progressio said on Thursday that long-term development will be 'seriously hindered' if justice for past crimes remains undelivered.

There would be several paths open to the East Timorese Government to provide justice for the victims of past crimes. One is to hold a plebiscite to give the people an opportunity to say whether they want an ongoing process of reconciliation without a special tribunal. It's arguable that the government is behaving in a very high-handed way in relation to these vexed matters and that it should give the people the opportunity to say what they want done.

Whatever the East Timorese Government opts for, Australia cannot expect that our views will receive a special hearing. Indeed our attempts to push for justice for the sake of stability would be perceived as a promotion of our own self-interest, to avoid having a failed state on our doorstep. This is consistent with our attempts to maximise revenue from oil in the Timor Sea, and now our lobbying to have the processing plant in Darwin rather than Dili.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. In late 1999 he spent two months in East Timor working with Caritas Australia.

Topic tags: East Timor, justice, reconciliation, tribunal, justice, crimes, referendum



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Existing comments

You said "delivery of justice for crimes committed". But the graffiti near Sydney Railway Station 40 years ago said "the jails are the crimes". Socrates said "it is not the work of the just man to injure, Thrasymachos, whether to injure a friend or anyone else - that is the work of the unjust man".

cronos | 31 August 2009  

A reason for processing Timor Gap hydrocarbons on mainland Australia may be that pipelines from rigs on the NW shelf cannot traverse the Timor Trench; only if crude hydrocarbons are to be dispatched from the rigs by ship can a refinery in East Timor may be considered.

That said, it is readily apparent that Australia has acted with regard to East Timor with a narrowly-defined self-interest that is not inconsistent with a stance best described as "cringing". Even the Howard government's initiation of INTERFET was undertaken in response to overwhelming public outrage at post-referendum militia violence.

After his retirement from diplomatic service, I heard Richard Wollcott say what he really thinks about Indonesian atrocities; the divergence from official Australian policies and statements was notable.

Punishment requires criminal prosecution, which necessarily introduces the risk that some of those guilty of atrocities are defined "not guilty", after which justice demands that they be treated as though innocent. On the other hand, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have the flaw that reconciliation is demanded of a community that may be too damaged to engage with the war criminal.

Truth and {Reconcile or Shun: you work it out} Commissions may be preferable.

David Arthur | 31 August 2009  

I absolutely endorse what M.Mullins is saying is this article. The people need to have a sense that justice has been done and seen to be done. Sadly, Ramos Horta has decided (one wonders how) not to have a tribunal to assess these crimes AND telling the UN not to continue gathering information about the killings, torture and God only knows what else these Indonesian thugs have done to the Timorese people!

Sadly also I've read in this morning's Canberra Times that in yesterday's celebrations, the Indoneasian Minister for Foreign affairs (wno was also invited) was 45 minutes late delaying the ceremony!!! Our G-G Quentin Bryce was never that disrespectful!
Unfortunately, I see no peace and prosperity coming to East Timor any time soon. God bless the poor people.

Nathalie | 31 August 2009  

Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1995. In April 2002 Xanana Gusmao was elected President with around 90% of the popular vote. He rejected the major findings of the commission set up in 2005 which recommended reparations for the victims of crime and trials for the perpetrators. He said:'These recommendations do not take into account the situation of political anarchy and social chaos that could easily erupt if we decided to bring to court every crime committed since 1974 or 1975'.

If President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Guasmao, the founding fathers of their country,oppose the formation of a Reconciliation Tribunal, that should be good enough for the pundits.

Claude Rigney | 03 September 2009  

I have been involved in the reconciliation process in Solomon Islands. I would simply make a couple of points. It depends what one means by reconciliation. There is definitely a need for real reconciliation which includes the main players in the conflict in different areas where the depth of feelings for the past remain unresolved. That requires an in-depth reconciliation between individuals and groups, not just the ceremonial stuff.

The work of bringing justice and reconciliation are both needed. It is not either/or. For instance the TRC in Solomon Islands does not allow for amnesty. So cases of justice can still be brought before the courts.

David Mills | 04 September 2009  

Reconciliation is a better way between east timor people, but not with criminal actors from indonesian country like Wiranto and Prabowo.

pedro de araujo dos santos | 07 September 2009  

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