Australia's complicity in the East Timor atrocities is ongoing

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Re-enactment of the Santa Cruz massacre, East Timor 1998 (Image via Wikipedia)

On the eve of Bali's terror summit, Justice Minister Michael Keenan said he'd "welcome" indicted war criminal Wiranto to Australia effectively closing the Turnbull Government's book on the East Timor genocide. Dr Adam Henry reports.

LET US imagine a scenario. A foreign occupying power wages an illegal war of aggression against Australia with the complicity of the UK and U.S. Over a period of 25 years of this occupation, the population of Geelong (187,000 approximately) dies because they were killed, starved, tortured, enslaved etc. This would be difficult for other Australians (at all levels of society) to ignore. It would surely be considered an outrage if the occupying power excused these excesses on the basis that Geelong was a “special case” and made up less than one per cent of the overall Australian population.

Let us imagine another scenario, what if the population of Brisbane (2,308,720 approximately) suffered this fate at the hands of our imaginary invaders — this would be just under 10 per cent of the entire Australian population. This would be viewed by other Australians (and many others internationally) as a grave crime against humanity, perhaps even genocide, and those responsible considered war criminals to be tried and sentenced for what they had done.

Now let us consider a scenario that actually occurred. With the diplomatic connivance of Australia, Britain and the U.S. (and others) they accept, and despite possessing the knowledge it will occur, do nothing to ever seriously discourage an illegal Indonesian invasion of East Timor. As the killings and atrocities begin they have already decided that their diplomatic relationship with the Suharto regime is far more important than the people of East Timor. These nations do more than “turn away” from events in East Timor, they in fact continue to support Suharto’s regime diplomatically and economically as it blatantly violates international law.

By late 1976, there are even fears from certain U.S. quarters that the Indonesian invasion (in the face of nationalist resistance) is stalling, indeed it might even fail. The U.S. and UK re-supply the Indonesian army with vital military equipment which prevent this outcome and from 1977 the Indonesians renew its counter insurgency war of occupation with the greatest vigour.

The Australians continue to supply military equipment on the basis it should not be used in East Timor, but maintains the primacy of its relationship with Jakarta. By 1978, when the killing and famine are piling up the bodies in East Timor, Australia grants de facto recognition of the Indonesian occupation — the main attraction is the possibility to negotiate with Jakarta over rich oil and gas supplies, that is, East Timor’s oil and gas. By 1979, Australia grants de jure recognition of the occupation, official negotiations over the Timor Gap can begin.

From a population that might have been between 600,000 to 800,000 at the time of the invasion, as many as 80,000 East Timorese (quite conceivably much higher) are dead as a direct or indirect result of the invasion and occupation by 1980. Estimates vary, but perhaps as many as 200,000 by the end of 1999.

There are many crimes to which we can turn our attention within the international system, in fact sad to say, we are truly spoilt for choices. But in my own view (and experiences) only some crimes elicit the types of “mainstream” outrage that ultimately lead to consequences for the guilty, moral condemnation and diplomatic action.

In the case of Timor Liste (formerly East Timor), there is no shortage of materials with which to examine the catastrophe of East Timor, and furthermore, the moral bankruptcy of Australian foreign policy. With the briefest intermission in 1999, the suffering of East Timorese has been little more than a hindrance to ongoing Australian adherence (at any cost) to the relationship with Jakarta.

Furthermore, we have seemingly learnt nothing from these experiences, not wisdom, not caution, not even the slightest official pangs of contrition. Some like Gareth Evans or Richard Woolcott happily (and without any sense of the obvious irony) give speeches discussing ethics, human rights and diplomacy. It is very difficult to see how such post career activities relate to their own involvement with Indonesia and East Timor though.

We can also gauge how little the human rights history of East Timor matters from the manner that successive Australian governments have clung with death like grip to the oil and gas concessions gained from the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty (memorably signed by Gareth Evans and Ali Alatas). We can also understand this by the fact that the suffering of West Papuans under corrupt Indonesian military rule makes not a ripple on the surface of Australian diplomacy or public human rights concerns.

Bluntly, if the Russians (or some other official enemy) had been responsible for what occurred in East Timor, or for that matter connected in any way for what is occurring in West Papua by supporting the parties responsible, or operating the massive Freeport mine, there would be (in my opinion) outrage, dare I say, concepts such as crimes against humanity, war criminality or even genocide might even cross the lips of some Australian, British or American politicians and diplomats.

Maybe even the notion of an international criminal court might be mooted to hold accountable all those directly and indirectly responsible for this human tragedy, perhaps even the much toted notion of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) might enter the debate, but this does not occur — it will never occur. We should pause to consider this, in both cases the power to do something about what was happening (and is happening) was (and is in) the tool box of Australian diplomacy, but for very base reasons we choose to do nothing. 

The reality is that not only do we not wish to consider the implications of issues like East Timor, Australia (and others) are more than happy to have the entire episode forgotten. Despite archival evidence, despite the reams of information highlighting responsibility and complicity, despite the fact that without Australian, British and American support Indonesia could not have invaded (or maintained anything resembling a long term occupation), there is an air of irritable annoyance from many Australian elites (particularly those who were directly involved diplomatically or politically), that anyone should want to continue digging in this field.

In late 2015, I applied to the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Studies, University of London to become a Visiting Fellow in Human Rights. After a lengthy process, I was invited to take up the position in later 2016. My project is to systematically examine the British archival records on East Timor, what do the British records contain about Australian diplomacy, what do they reveal about contacts with the Australian Embassy, and what do they say about various atrocities?

This is a non-paid position, and of course it is never cheap to conduct overseas research. However, if you feel like me and believe that this is a topic worth researching, and the documentary record worth highlighting, please take a look at my modest crowd funding campaign to help me get there and do this archival work.

The evidence regarding the human rights abuses and atrocities in East Timor is clear, the names of perpetrators, their actions, and the foreign powers who enabled them, documented. Crimes against humanity in East Timor satisfy every criterion under international law for prosecution, but the likelihood of justice is distant. Not because of a lack of evidence, testimony, archival documents, witnesses, or that it is difficult to allocate the legalities of blame for what occurred.

The main reason is twofold. The first is because Australia, Britain and the United States are obviously complicit in the crime. They all chose the goal of diplomatic relations with the perpetrators (the Indonesian military and Suharto) over the East Timorese and international law.

The second is that to maintain their diplomatic relations with Indonesia in the present, there can be no mention of issues such as West Papua, or the unpunished crimes against humanity committed by the Indonesian security forces in East Timor. These facts alone terminally reduce the possibilities that any war criminals will ever be tried by an internationally sanctioned and supported court.

But this does not mean that crimes did not occur, or that researchers should cease compiling the archival records documenting these events and those involved. The wheels of justice can turn very slowly, but they do turn, therefore efforts at documenting such records can help push them just that little bit further.

Dr Adam Hughes Henry is a visiting fellow at the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. You can read more from Adam Henry on his websiteHelp Dr Henry find the full truth about this dark chapter in history by contributing to his crowd funding campaign here

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