Press Briefing


Correspondents heard a strong plea for justice in East Timor at a Headquarters press conference sponsored by the United States Mission this afternoon.  Talking to the press were John Miller of the International Federation for East Timor; Filomena Barros dos Reis, Advocacy Director of the East Timor NGO Forum; and Diane Farsetta of the East Timor Action Network.

Stressing that on 20 May, East Timor would become the first new independent nation of the twenty-first century, Ms. dos Reis described the atrocities committed there and her experience working with the victims of the riots.  Rich  in natural resources, but poor in human terms, the country needed help from the international community to overcome the devastation of recent violence and achieve sustainability.

She had come to New York not only as an activist, she said, but also as a speaker on behalf of the East Timorese women victims, who were “screaming for justice”.  Thousands of people had been murdered, tortured and raped in East Timor, following the vote for independence from Indonesia in the August 1999 Popular Consultation.  Victims were still waiting for justice, however, with perpetrators of violence still at large.  Despite the fact that a memorandum of understanding had been signed between the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) and the Government of Indonesia regarding prosecution of those guilty of the crimes, the results were “not really good”.  In only a few months, the country would become fully independent, but the problems would remain.

According to the printed materials distributed at the press conference, the United Nations had set up an International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor, which had determined that the Indonesian Government and military personnel had participated in organizing and committing the violence.  Similar findings had also been made by Indonesia’s own internal commission of inquiry.  In its January 2001 report, the United Nations Commission had recommended establishing an international human rights tribunal for East Timor, but the Security Council had declined to do that, in large part due to promises by Indonesia that perpetrators of violence would be prosecuted. 

Indonesia’s recent indictment of seven military officers for crimes against humanity committed in 1999 in East Timor did not alleviate concerns that Indonesian courts could not provide justice for the victims.  To hold those responsible for the crimes accountable, an international court was needed.  Such a court would also be in a position to better investigate the crimes, for currently, as Ms. Dos Reis pointed out, many witnesses, particularly women, were too frightened to testify against their abusers.

Mr. Miller agreed that it was extremely important for the Security Council to establish an international tribunal for East Timor in order to facilitate healing, following massive human rights abuses there.  It was particularly relevant in view of the fact that while a Serious Crimes Unit was working in East Timor, it could only prosecute those perpetrators of crimes who were present

there.  Indonesia had refused to extradite anybody to East Timor, although many high-level members of its military had been accused of serious crimes. 

Although Indonesia’s human rights court had issued its first indictments last week, he continued, nobody believed that it would hand down appropriate sentences.  Initial sentences in West Timor, for example, had been “laughable”, to put it mildly.  He expected that the court “would be a farce”, because its judges were not qualified to try cases of human rights abuses, there was no witness protection programme, and many witnesses were too afraid to testify.  Instead of such piecemeal justice, an international court should put on record and prosecute all those responsible for violence.  Without such a court, many of the perpetrators would escape justice. 

Ms. Farsetta added that besides impunity, an important aspect of the issue was the problem of refugees.  Some 300,000 people had been forced out of East Timor in 1999.  Since then, the militias had not been disbanded, and the military had not been held accountable.  In many cases, people in refugee camps were still subjected to abuse.  Up to 10 per cent of the population were unable to contribute to the country’s economy.  Justice through the international tribunal would also help to resolve the situation in the country.

Asked about the purpose of her visit to New York, Ms. dos Reis said that she had come here to ask the United Nations to set up an international tribunal for East Timor.  She wanted to speak about the needs of the people of East Timor and the role of the United Nations in the country.  It was important to put pressure on the Indonesian Government to provide justice.

Mr. Miller added that it was also necessary to emphasize the role of the United Nations in the country, which would reduce its presence but remain actively involved after East Timor achieved independence.  It was important to make sure that the needs of the East Timorese people were met before the United Nations moved on to other places and crises. 

To a question about his vision of an international court for East Timor, he said that instead of relying on justice in Indonesia, an international court should sit in both Jakarta and Dili to record the crimes and prosecute those guilty of human rights violations.  Both societies needed to heal, and both peoples needed to learn the truth.  In setting up the court, it was important to take into account the lessons learned from the experience of other international tribunals.  An added international aspect was that much of the violence in 1999 had been directed against the United Nations and its staff.  The United Nations mission had been essentially driven out of East Timor as a result of violence.

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