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Weapons deals make human rights talk a sham

Four years ago, when first running for the presidency, Bill Clinton said of East Timor: "We have ignored it so far in ways that I think are unconscionable." Candidate Clinton was referring to ongoing human rights violations by Indonesian troops occupying the Eastern section of the remote island. Once in office, however, Clinton began to lose some of his outrage, as economic and military pressures seemingly gained a hold on him.

The media in recent days have focused on donations from a wealthy Indonesian to the Clinton campaign. Critics rightly ask what the president may have offered in return for the financial support. Perhaps it has played a role in shaping the way Clinton has been dealing with the Indonesian business community and the Indonesian government.

There is, however, another element to the story -- which may be just as corrupting. There are monumental pressures on U.S. administrations to build and sell U.S. weapons overseas.

A case in point involves U.S. plans to sell to Indonesia nine F-16 fighter planes originally sold to Pakistan but never delivered because Pakistan was viewed as pursuing development of nuclear weapons. The planes apparently need a home, and U.S. officials are intent on finding one. These fighter planes, however, will only add to regional instability while propping up the "prestige" of the Suharto regime. The sale has been under discussion for nearly two years but has not been completed, largely because the two sides have not been able to agree on a price.

Groups concerned with human rights violations in Indonesia have campaigned against this sale to the repressive Indonesian government while giving it another tool for further repression.

The F-16 sale was completed except for minor details when Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Jakarta in early July. But the grossly undemocratic nature of the Indonesian regime, highlighted by the repression of political opponents in late July, reopened the debate. Although some U.S. weapons sales to Indonesia have been limited since the Indonesian army's 1991 massacre in East Timor, stopping the F-16 sale would send a signal to Indonesia and the wider world community that Clinton has not forgotten his concerns for human rights.

Stopping the sale would give fresh hope to the victims of Indonesian repression, especially the people of forsaken East Timor, home of the latest Nobel Prize laureates, East Timor Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos Horta.

In August, the administration floated the idea that the sale should not go forward while Indonesia's President Suharto and his military were suppressing and threatening opposition parties and arresting hundreds of political activists, human rights workers and labor organizers. A week later, a State Department spokesman said the sale would be postponed until at least 1997. In mid-September, however, Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord told a Senate Committee: "We remain convinced that this transfer is in the U.S. interest and should proceed, and we intend to notify Congress of our intentions in January."

There should be no U.S. military backing for Indonesia. It is not in the long-term interest of the United States to continue to sell major weapons systems overseas. (The U.S. takes dubious pride in being the world's largest weapons exporter.) It is a national scandal that U.S. interests are viewed as being furthered by the sales of major weapons systems overseas.

As long as the U.S. military engine continues to propel U.S. foreign policy, even U.S. lip service to human rights concerns will be seen for what it is -- a sham. And the world knows this, even as U.S. citizens continue to live in a state of seeming moral amnesia.

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996