Another U.N. disaster

United Nations ineptitude has paved the way for the current East Timor crisis.

By Ian Williams

Published September 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Never has the road to hell been so well sign-posted as is the case with the current mayhem in East Timor. And decades of U.S. support for Indonesian repression has made sure that that road has been well-paved with Timorese corpses.

Reporters, U.N. observers and anyone paying passing attention knew that the Indonesians and their local surrogates were not going to go quietly into the sunset after the recent referendum in which East Timorese overwhelmingly endorsed independence from Indonesia. The Indonesian army and police had clearly been, to varying degrees, complicit in the militia attacks and attempts to intimidate voters in the weeks leading up to the referendum.

However, the official line in the U.N. Security Council was to take Jakarta and Indonesian President B.J. Habibie at his word and trust the Indonesians to guarantee a peaceful transition. Having taken such a leap of faith, which in effect gambled with the lives of the U.N. staff and locals alike, no one is eager to 'fess up now.

In fact, Habibie might well have been sincere, but it has been clear all along that the Indonesian military is not totally under his control. Its intransigence was built into the very structure of the referendum itself. At Indonesian insistence, the referendum was not technically about independence -- it was for or against autonomy, and the Indonesians would not permit any foreign armed security presence in the province. Their position was that the Timorese had exercised their right to self-determination after the Portuguese left by "inviting" the Indonesians. That so-called invitation -- the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, left 200,000 Timorese dead. Habibie promised to treat a "no" vote as a vote for independence, but it seems that his military did not consider such pledges as binding on them.

Apparently, they thought that Jakarta had far more Timorese support than it did, and that, boosted by the pre-ballot militia mayhem, the result would be at least close enough to cry foul. Indeed, the local governor is still calling foul despite the almost 80 percent majority. A key figure is longtime Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, who, Portuguese diplomats report, was very reasonable and flexible in the run-up to the vote, but has since reverted to his more traditional hard-line attitude, seemingly in collusion with the military and the militias.

Although the residual power of the old U.N. resolution from 1975 condemning the invasion of East Timor was crucial in forcing a vote, which the Timorese obviously welcomed, it takes more than a resolution to persuade the military. On the face of it, the international community has come in, stirred up a hornet's nest of retaliation and then deserted the people to whom it had given hope of independence after a quarter century of neglect. And unlike the previous massacres, tacitly condoned by the United States and kept off the airwaves by the brutal repression of journalists, this is happening in the stark glare of world attention.

Of course the administration's traditional scapegoat of first recourse is the United Nations. In fact, the organization's reputation has been saved by an unprecedented mutiny by U.N. staff there. U.N. rules say that at the first sign of serious danger, staff members are supposed to be evacuated. In the case of East Timor, the staff were more committed than elsewhere -- they had, after all, volunteered for a dangerous, fever-ridden posting -- and they are led by Ian Martin, the former head of Amnesty International.

Martin refused to quit and some hundred of his staff have joined him in refusing to leave the Timorese in the lurch. That raises the stakes for the United Nations. However, even now, diplomats are talking of giving time for the Indonesian military to control the situation -- as if it had not already done so. Though President Clinton has cut off ties with the Indonesian military and implored Indonesia to either gain control of the situation or invite international peacekeepers in, there is still no plan for U.N. intervention.

When the current mission of five U.N. Security Council ambassadors reports back to New York, the United States could expiate its past sins and avoid future complicity in keeping the cycle of impunity going by demanding Security Council authorization for military action. However, it will almost certainly not -- particularly if the Indonesians succeed in driving out the U.N. observers and the press from East Timor, so they that they carry on with their killing in peace.

Despite his generally good relations with the White House and administration, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has raised the stakes. He is well aware that Washington and others will be looking for people to shift blame to. He has supported Ian Martin, and in an action unprecedented for the United Nations, even authorized the evacuation of local U.N. employees. (In stark contrast, many Rwandan Tutsi staff were left to their fate.)

Annan urged Jakarta to accept the military help offered by Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia, and significantly warned, "If it refuses to do so, it cannot escape responsibility for what could amount to ... crimes against humanity. In any event, those responsible for these crimes must be called to account."

Still up in the air is the question of whether the members of the U.N. Security Council would authorize intervention, Kosovo style, in the teeth of Indonesian disapproval. Most ambassadors agree that there is no legal bar to involvement. In fact, legally, because East Timor is still recognized by the United Nations as a Portuguese colony, the Portuguese could invite anyone they'd like to intervene.

If the United Nations was willing to intervene in Kosovo, why not East Timor? That is the embarrassing question that haunts the White House. In the case of Kosovo, there was the embarrassment of no U.N. resolution, since Russia and China were unwilling to lend their approval to NATO's military action.

In the case of East Timor, there is indeed a U.N. resolution condemning the Indonesian invasion in 1975. With the possible exception of Australia, no country in the world recognizes East Timor as Indonesian territory. In fact, legally, it is still under Portuguese sovereignty, although Lisbon is not actually pushing very hard to take it over.

So why was the original U.N. resolution not enforced? Much of it had to do with Cold War politics. U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in 1978 that since the Communists were backing the Timorese, the United States had to side with Indonesia. "The Department of State desired that the United Nations proved utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success," Moynihan said.

To round the circle, Richard Holbrooke, who has now assumed Moynihan's old position at the United Nations, was the desk officer in the State Department in 1978. Holbrooke's responsibility was to cover for Indonesia as it massacred one-third of the Timorese population during its anti-secessionist campaign.

Of course, it is not so easy to simply walk in the face of an occupying army thousands of miles from any secure base. Even Robin Cook, British foreign secretary and Kosovo hawk, is being cautious, on the very practical grounds that it is much easier to intervene with Indonesian support than it would be to go against the 23,000 Indonesian troops there. He does hint, nonetheless, that Indonesian failure to cooperate might change that policy.

The Indonesians themselves seem to have taken tutorials from Slobodan Milosevic in how to deal with an irresolute world community: Outright Goebbelsian lies, evasions and occasional statements of moderation until the fever heat of world indignation dies down enough to start all over again.

And what about Washington? There, of course, it's déjà vu all over again. Repeating every messy mistake of the last decade in the Balkans, every Cabinet official seems to be to busy telling the Indonesians what the U.S. will not do: The U.S. will not send troops, says Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, because it is not the world's policeman. The White House announces that it will stop military aid -- of $700,000 -- but seems to hint that continued arms sales are fine. U.S. officials prevaricate, but suggest that it would in some way be precipitate to stop the IMF loan that Jakarta desperately needs.

Current American policy toward Indonesia seems to be predicated on a belief that Habibie is losing control of his country. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, admitting that Clinton had not bothered phoning Habibie, says that "we have focussed on where we believe the decisions are being made, which is the Indonesian military." It is hardly surprising that the Indonesian military, after a quarter of a century of collusion and complicity from the Pentagon and the State Department, seems to think that it can still get away with mass murder.

Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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