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Human Rights Watch World Report 2001 - East Timor

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 December 2000
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 2001 - East Timor , 1 December 2000, available at: [accessed 23 October 2017]
Comments This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

East Timor's first year of freedom from Indonesia was largely devoted to recovery and reconstruction from the September 1999 violence that left the entire country a charred ruin. As they rebuilt, East Timorese and the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) had to decide on how to handle past abuses, how to prevent new ones, and how to build basic institutions to ensure the protection of human rights. Progress was slow, particularly in bringing the perpetrators of the 1999 crimes to justice. By October, however, a new court system and police force were in place, two daily newspapers were circulating, NGOs were flourishing, and intense discussions on the country's future constitution were taking place.

The new East Timor was not free of human rights violations. Many East Timorese returning from West Timor were abused for alleged militia links by local officials of the National Council of East Timorese Resistance (CNRT), UNTAET's governing partner, and by members of the former guerrilla army, Falintil; several returnees were killed. U.N. police lacked the capacity and often the will to prevent such abuse. Members of the country's Muslim, Protestant, and ethnic Chinese minorities found themselves persecuted because of suspected ties to the Indonesian power structure. CNRT leaders were not always tolerant of political organizations with viewpoints different from their own.

Human Rights Developments

On October 19, the Indonesian People's Consultative Assembly voted to accept the results of the August 30 referendum in which close to 80 percent of East Timor's population had voted to separate from Indonesia. On October 22, Xanana Gusmao, for seven years a political prisoner in Jakarta, returned to Dili as president of the CNRT. UNTAET came into being through Security Council Resolution 1272 of October 25, 1999. East Timor became, for all intents and purposes, a U.N. protectorate governed by a special representative of the secretary-general with close to absolute powers. The first regulation adopted by the new administration noted that anyone holding public office or engaged in public duties in East Timor would be obliged to observe human rights standards embodied in a list of international treaties. (At its inception in 1998, the CNRT committed itself to upholding the same standards in its "Magna Carta of Freedoms, Rights and Duties for the People of East Timor.")

UNTAET had to create basic institutions from scratch. The first East Timorese judges, prosecutors, and public defenders were installed on January 7, 2000 but the court building, destroyed by the militias, was not ready until March. At one point, UNTAET's own police stopped making any arrests of suspected criminals, including those involved in the 1999 violence, because it had no place to put them; the one detention center in the entire country, a former Ministry of Tourism building, had long since exceeded capacity, and the main prison in the capital, Dili, was only rehabilitated in May. The police academy started training its first East Timorese recruits in late March.

As in many other peacekeeping missions, UNTAET's civilian police (civpol) were a major problem. Recruitment was agonizingly slow, and the overall quality of those recruited was low. Most civpols were recruited for three-month tours of duty, hardly enough time to understand the place or the people. Almost none spoke a language intelligible to the East Timorese, and interpreters were scarce, leading to a reliance on informal security forces set up by the CNRT, whose activities civpol had almost no capacity to monitor or control.

Because almost all of East Timor's lawyers had been trained in Indonesian universities, UNTAET decided in November 1999 that Indonesian law would be the applicable law except where it conflicted with international standards. It took until September, however, to come up with an acceptable provisional criminal procedure code. UNTAET police from close to fifty countries had little guidance in criminal procedure in the intervening months and often operated according to the procedures they knew from home.

The process of investigating crimes against humanity in East Timor was slowed by some of the same problems of lack of institutional infrastructure, untrained civpols, and bureaucratic divisions within UNTAET. As early as December 1999, UNTAET decided that aninternational panel of the Dili district court would be set up to investigate international crimes, such as crimes against humanity, and all serious offenses, such as murder and rape, that occurred from January 1, 1999 through October 25, 1999.

None of the civpol who were legally empowered to investigate the 1999 crimes, however, received any training in investigating crimes against humanity until late June. Most civpol treated each case as a routine homicide investigation, with no attention to the role of the Indonesian state or to the links among the different crimes. The short tours of duty meant that every new investigator coming in tended to start the questioning of witnesses from scratch.

Authority for investigations changed repeatedly. In late November 1999, a special five-member commission appointed by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson arrived in Dili to hear testimony from over one hundred eyewitnesses to murder, rape, and arson. Known as the International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor (ICIET), the group issued a report on January 31, 2000, recommending, among other things, that an international tribunal be set up to prosecute those responsible for the abuses. In his letter forwarding the report to the Security Council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not endorse the recommendation for a separate tribunal, stressing that full cooperation should be given to Indonesian efforts to investigate the crimes, but recommended that UNTAET capacity for coordinating investigations be strengthened.

From November to late March, civpol alone had full authority for investigations. Its investigation unit, however, was responsible not just for investigating the 1999 violence but for all ongoing crimes as well. As law and order concerns in East Timor increased, attention to the 1999 crimes was often diverted. On March 22, a war crimes/human rights investigations unit was set up within civpol to be headed by an investigator from the Office of Human Rights Affairs. The change was only on paper; the new unit had no investigators other than civpol. In early June, a prosecution service was set up under UNTAET's judicial affairs department, separate both from civpol and from the Office of Human Rights Affairs (OHRA). On July 20, 2000, UNTAET formally shifted from its original peacekeeping structure to a coalition government with the CNRT. Among the eight "ministries" created was a Ministry of Judicial Affairs to which the investigation unit was formally moved in August.

In the meantime, six different agencies concerned with accountability for the 1999 crimes – judicial affairs, human rights, political affairs, legal affairs, civpol, and the East Timorese courts – went ahead with their efforts, sometimes tripping over each other in the process. East Timorese witnesses to these crimes grew resentful over repeated questioning without any obvious progress in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

If investigations into killings were slow, they were close to non-existent in rape cases. Serious investigations into rape as an element of crimes against humanity only began in July; before then only two rape cases from 1999 were under active investigation. One factor was the lack of women investigators. Less than 4 percent of the civpol force overall was female, and of the handful of women investigators, only one had special training in investigating sexual crimes.

Throughout the year, the relationship with the Indonesian investigation into crimes in East Timor remained delicate. The Indonesian Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in East Timor (KPP-HAM) visited Dili in December and January; the defense team for Indonesian army officers considered possible suspects in the violence came to East Timor on January 20. On January 31, KPP-HAM issued a thorough and professional report timed to coincide with release of the ICIET report.

The quality of the KPP-HAM report served to give the Indonesian effort more credibility than it otherwise might have had, but it also put pressure on the Indonesian Attorney General's Office to come up with indictments. To get those indictments, the attorney general needed UNTAET's help; his office had almost no evidence that would stand up in court. UNTAET, for its part, recognized that those most responsible for the 1999 violence were all in Indonesia. If UNTAET was fully cooperative with the Indonesian process, not only might the interests of justice be better served, but the Attorney General's Office also would have no excuse for not proceeding with prosecutions.

Accordingly, on April 6, UNTAET and the Indonesian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding that would facilitate the exchange of evidentiary materials and enable one country to request the other to question witnesses, make arrests, or "transfer" suspects as necessary. Indonesia made its first formal request under the M.O.U. on May 15 for assistance in five cases; it sent a team of seventeen investigators to pursue that request in July. As of August, UNTAET had made no requests of its own.

In mid-May, Xanana Gusmao, president of the CNRT, announced the establishment of a National Return and Reconciliation Commission. Plans for the commission were further developed in June, and by August, a coordinating committee led by UNTAET was considering a plan that would allow perpetrators of lesser offenses, such as arson or looting, to make a full confession of their misdeeds before the commission. Traditional justice mechanisms at the local level would then assign the perpetrator to some form of community service, but the misdeeds, the confession, and the "sentence" would be registered with the formal court system.

The focus on the 1999 violence tended to obscure ongoing violations. Violence against East Timorese returning from West Timor was a serious problem, although the vast majority of the more than 170,000 who had returned by September 2000 did so safely. Those linked, or suspected of having links, to militia groups or to the Indonesian army sometimes faced mob violence, particularly in late 1999 and early 2000 when the two major agencies involved in facilitating returns, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Office on Migration (IOM), gave local communities little warning of planned returns.

In some cases, civpols working outside the capital ceded authority to CNRT or to the former guerrilla army, Falintil, to screen returnees and question them about past militia affiliations. In early February, a returning militia member was beaten and stabbed by members of an "investigation unit" of the CNRT in Liquica, a town near Dili. In the town of Tibar, even nearer to Dili, a suspected militia member was kicked to death in April after having been held for five days in an illegal detention facility. In the latter two cases, UNTAET civpols took the suspected perpetrators into custody, but the screening process was allowed to continue. In Aileu, the town in the interior chosen as the country's future capital by Xanana Gusmao, where Falintil guerrillas were stationed, Falintil ran detention and "reeducation" centers without serious interference from UNTAET.

Local CNRT leaders were also responsible for intimidation and harassment of minorities. Some 265 Indonesian Muslims remained virtually under siege in the Dili mosque to which they had fled in September 1999. Most had been long-term residents of Dili. Congregations of the Assembly of God Protestant church in the districts of Ermera and Aileu came under attack, most seriously on June 9 when three churches were burned. The pastors were accused of having links in 1999 to an Aileu-based militia. Indonesian businesspeople of ethnic Chinese background faced threats and extortion from gangs apparently under the control of CNRT leaders. The threats became particularly pronounced after a riot in the Dili sports stadium on April 30 in which two businessmen were accused of financially backing a group seen as opposed to the CNRT.No evidence to that effect was ever produced. East Timorese ethnic Chinese were also forced to pay protection money to gangs linked to local leaders.

Defending Human Rights

East Timor's beleaguered human rights community expanded in size and influence during the year. Organizations such as Yayasan HAK, a legal aid and human rights organization; the Sahe Institute, an independent think tank; Fokupers, a women's rights organization; and the Student Solidarity Council led the way in human rights training, discussions on constitutional development, and advocacy of greater participation in UNTAET decision-making. New professional associations like the East Timorese Jurists Association and the East Timorese Journalists Association helped generate discussion on how to protect and promote human rights.

On July 25, a workshop on human rights sponsored by UNTAET's Office of Human Rights Affairs together with the East Timorese Jurists Association secured a commitment from different political organizations to uphold political and economic rights in East Timor as the country moved toward independence. U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Mary Robinson gave the keynote address at the workshop.

The Role of the International Community

The international community wholeheartedly supported the reconstruction of East Timor, with U.S. $522 million pledged at a December 1999 donor conference in Tokyo, jointly chaired by UNTAET and the World Bank. Japan, the E.U., Australia, Portugal, and the U.S. all made significant contributions. At a follow-up conference in Lisbon in June 2000, donors agreed to cover the U.S. $16 million shortfall between expenses and revenue in East Timor's first-ever national budget. East Timorese leaders saw the aid less as overwhelming generosity than as an appropriate response from the countries that had long supported the former Soeharto government in Indonesia. Many bilateral and multilateral donors saw the reconstruction effort as an opportunity to help lay the foundations for a democratic society; they funded NGOs and local professional associations as well as UNTAET. Some donors earmarked funds specifically for human rights and justice projects: Britain helped with forensic equipment, Canada with forensic investigators, the U.S. with initial efforts toward a truth and reconciliation commission, Norway with criminal investigations, and so on. Australia played a particularly important role as the new state's nearest and largest neighbor.

The killings of two UNTAET soldiers in August and of three UNHCR workers in West Timor on September 6 sparked international outrage and demands for disarming and prosecuting the militias.

United Nations

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the U.N. Security Council were supportive of UNTAET throughout the year. Annan was warmly received during his visit to East Timor in February, and he underscored his commitment to seeking justice for the 1999 violence. Security Council Resolution 1319, adopted on September 8, called the killings of aid workers in West Timor "outrageous and contemptible," demanded that Indonesia disarm and disband the militias, stressed that those responsible should be brought to justice, and called on UNTAET to "respond robustly" to the militia threat.

In early November 1999, the special rapporteurs on violence against women; torture; and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions visited East Timor. Their report, released in December, linked grave human rights abuses, including murder and rape, to the Indonesian army and the militias it created. In November, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights coordinated the visit of the five ICIET commissioners.

The UNICEF office in Dili took a lead role in addressing children's rights issues. Its main concern in this regard was the problem of children separated from their parents during the conflict; reports of hundreds of East Timorese children taken to Java in late 1999 were still being investigated as this report went to press. UNICEF also took a strong interest in juvenile detention and worked for regulations on adoptions by foreigners of East Timorese children.

UNHCR had a large office in Dili and together with the IOM had supervised the return of more than 170,000 East Timorese by September 2000. While heavily criticized in the first few months for failing to take adequate precautions to protect returnees who might be accused of militia connections, UNHCR's preparations improved as the year progressed.

International Financial Institutions

From its Joint Assessment Mission of October 1999 onward, the World Bank played a critical and positive role in East Timor. The bank was instrumental in securing commitments from donors at the Tokyo and Lisbon conferences and worked intensively with CRNT leaders to hammer out a budget that reflected CNRT priorities. The World Bank became the unlikely champion of village-level democracy through its Community Empowerment Project in which local councils, each composed equally of men and women, were elected to decide on distribution of development funds at the village, district, and subdistrict levels.


Australia played a decisive role in assisting East Timor. Australia assumed a critical leadership position in September 1999 in assembling the International Forces for East Timor (Interfet) under General Peter Cosgrove, and continued to play a leading part within UNTAET peacekeeping operations. Darwin, Australia was part of the mission area for UNTAET, and for many months was the only direct air link between East Timor and the rest of the world. It was from Darwin that most supplies were brought into East Timor, and Darwin provided training facilities for civilian police and other parts of UNTAET. The Australian government seconded hundreds of personnel to work in virtually every field of development, including democratization, and arranged for the design and construction of East Timor's first parliament building.

The government took a strong interest in the investigations into the 1999 violence. In mid-2000, it quietly turned over to the Indonesian Attorney General's Office all files on investigations conducted by Interfet into militia crimes, with witnesses names removed.

United States

The key contributors for the U.S. on East Timor were the State Department, including ambassadors to the U.N. and Jakarta, Congress, and President Clinton. In November, U.N. Secretary Richard Holbrooke and Stanley Roth, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and PacificAffairs, made a highly publicized visit to the refugee camps in West Timor and pressed for an agreement between UNTAET and Indonesia on the repatriation of refugees. Holbrooke throughout the year raised the need to disarm and control the militias and end cross-border incursions. He was a major force behind Security Council Resolution 1319.

The State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and Ambassador Robert Gelbard in Jakarta, provided strong support for investigations in Jakarta and Dili into the East Timor violence, securing funds from Congress to support the prosecution efforts in both capitals and to help with training of East Timorese police and the establishment of a criminal justice system.

In May, some members of Congress introduced language into the foreign aid bill for fiscal year 2001 forbidding direct U.S. military sales to or training programs for the Indonesian military until East Timorese were repatriated from West Timor and militia attacks against East Timor had ended. The bill was still pending in October. In September, a bill was introduced that would enable the U.S. to increase support for activities in East Timor as the country moved toward independence, including support for human rights, the rule of law, and reconciliation processes. Congress had not acted on it before adjourning in October.

European Union

At the December 1999 international donors' meeting, the European Commission pledged 60 million euros over a three-year period for East Timor's reconstruction. Also in December, the European Parliament voted to extend the arms embargo against Indonesia imposed on September 16,1999 after the post-referendum violence. On January 17, 2000, the embargo expired without debate. The United Kingdom quickly resumed sales of Hawk jet fighters to Indonesia. All member states, however, remained individually bound by the European Union's (E.U.) Code of Conduct regarding arms exports. The E.U., with Portugal holding the Presidency from January 1 through June 30, 2000, followed closely the investigations into the 1999 violence and the situation of East Timorese refugees in West Timor. The E.U. repeatedly expressed concern about Indonesia's failure to disarm the militias, including in a Presidency statement on September 7, following the killing of humanitarian workers in West Timor.

Southeast Asia

The Philippines and Thailand supplied successive commanders of the UNTAET peacekeeping forces, and Southeast Asian countries were well represented both in those forces and in the civilian police.

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid was given an enthusiastic reception by a crowd of thousands when he visited Dili on February 29. He appeared generally committed to normalization of relations with East Timor, but many members of his administration, particularly Foreign Ministry officials who had served in previous administrations, were willing to make few concessions to the normalization process.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, invited Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta to attend its annual summit meeting in Bangkok in July.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Reports

Forced Expulsions to West Timor and the Refugee Crisis, 11/99

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