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Voices raised here can help East Timor rebuild

The people of East Timor need the opportunity to develop their young nation. However, to do so they need help from the outside world. It will take many years for the East Timorese to rise from the ashes of anger and revenge.

In the weeks following the U.N.-sponsored elections in August 1999, militiamen, backed by Indonesian police and military, inflicted mayhem throughout East Timor, burning and pillaging homes, running wild on city streets and murdering at will. According to some reports, roads were lined with posts topped with decapitated heads. Many people fled.

Meanwhile, up to 100,000 East Timorese refugees continue to languish in militia-controlled refugee camps in West Timor. Until this refugee crisis is resolved and until the Indonesian government asserts full control over its military and holds it accountable for human rights violations committed in East Timor, the current suspension of all military ties between the United States and Indonesia must be maintained.

Nearly two years after the Timorese crimes were committed, Indonesian military or police personnel have yet to be held accountable for their crimes in East Timor. To the contrary, many of the Indonesian officers responsible for the havoc have been promoted.

East Timor’s own justice system is fragile and unable to try or even question Indonesian military officers alleged to have been responsible for the mayhem. The Indonesian court system has repeatedly failed to punish human right violators.

Many rights activists who have worked to bring freedom and justice to East Timor are now calling for an international tribunal, one that can provide full justice for the East Timorese. We join that call.

Strong U.S. congressional support for establishing an international tribunal is needed. A resolution in the U.S. Senate titled “Condemning the Violence in East Timor and Urging the Establishment of an International War Crimes Tribunal” needs more cosponsors. This international tribunal would be a necessary step in achieving justice for East Timor and in holding the Indonesian military responsible for its actions in that country. It is critical for Congress to adopt this resolution. This is a time of uncertainty in U.S. policy planning with regard to East Timor because the Bush administration is still formulating its policies toward East Timor and Indonesia.

U.N. action is needed to oversee the return of refugees to East Timor and to disarm and disband those militia forces that control refugee camps in West Timor. In both 1999 and 2000, Congress allocated $25 million in U.S. economic assistance for East Timor through the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. Rebuilding East Timor is progressing slowly, and the United Nations will soon decrease its presence.

Supporters of East Timor are requesting that the United States allocate $30 million in economic assistance for East Timor this year, with an additional $2 million for scholarships for East Timorese students. Achieving this modest increase in aid, however, will not be easy. Voices in favor of human rights need to be raised -- and heard.

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001