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East Timor needs justice before reconciliation

  • 31 August 2009

We 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