East Timor reparations both symbolic and material


East Timor posterAs 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.

Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR)

Lia KentLia 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.
Image from CAVR Poster Exhibition




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Existing comments

I agree.
Bruno | 18 March 2008

Thank you for your calm and reasoned comments. We have much to learn from Timor Leste but this will entail a whole lot of listening and this is not one of our better habits. I'd be interested to know the title of your PhD thesis.
John Collins | 18 March 2008

I am not too sure how we could learn anything from East Timor after the Foreign Correspondent story of last week.
Rob | 18 March 2008

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. The atmosphere among the East Timorese leaders was one of 'look to the future' and let the experiences of the past fade away in the spirit of forgiveness. Few seemed to realise that putting reparations on the agenda was not just about seeking material compensation. It was about tracing responsibility for what had transpired, and exposing the culture behind the actions. It was about gaining formal recognition, internationally but especially in the Indonesian political establishment, of what hurt and material harm had been inflicted on the people of East Timor. Without that formal recognition, there will always be 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. Many felt they should now be happy in the new spirit of liberation. However those of us who were tasked with identifying past crimes against humanity learned that these injustices were very much alive in the minds of the population. Many times I was told 'we want justice' or even simply 'we want those responsible to admit to their misdeeds and apoligise'. Somehow Xanana and other Timorese leaders had decided to put the past behind them, without fully understanding the consequences of this move. And now the victims are still suffering while the guilty ones enjoy the kind if impunity that makes this aspect of the search for justice meaningless. Beware of the perils of pragmatism!

James Dunn was a 2000-2001 UNTAET expert on crimes against humanity in East Timor.
James Dunn | 18 March 2008


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