Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

Was the Conflict in East Timor `Genocide' and Why Does It Matter?

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

Was the Conflict in East Timor `Genocide' and Why Does It Matter?

Article excerpt

[In the intense mass media reporting of the post-independence ballot violence in East Timor in September 1999, frequent reference was made to the term `genocide'. The characterisation of the violence as genocide was driven by comments made by East Timorese independence leaders, human rights advocates, and journalists themselves. Yet very few commentators analysed whether the violence in East Timor -- both before and after the independence ballot -- satisfied the international legal definition of `genocide' under the Genocide Convention. This article considers why it matters whether the conflict in East Timor should or should not be characterised as genocide, from practical and philosophical perspectives. It then assesses whether the violence against the East Timorese in the post-ballot period of September 1999, and the pre-ballot period from December 1975 to October 1999, can accurately be described as genocide under international law. The article concludes by discussing whether genocide was prohibited as a crime under domestic law in East Timor during the relevant periods. The probability that the violence in East Timor did not legally amount to `genocide' under the international definition raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the Genocide Convention and the pressing need for its reform.]

I INTRODUCTION

In the intense mass media reporting of the post-independence ballot violence in East Timor in September 1999, frequent reference was made to the term `genocide'. Around the world, newspapers as far afield as the Philippines, Hong Kong, Portugal, Spain, Mexico, Belgium, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, to name just a few, described the violence in terms of genocide. (1) In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald prominently headlined one front page article `Race against Genocide'. (2) The characterisation of the violence as genocide was driven in part by the comments of East Timorese independence leaders. After his release from house arrest, Xanana Gusmao, leader of the National Council for Timorese Resistance, claimed that genocide was occurring in East Timor because the Indonesian Armed Forces (`TNI') and its militia proxies were depopulating the territory. (3) Bishop Carlos Belo stated to CNN shortly before meeting the Pope that `we can verify that there is a genocide, a cleansing' occurring. (4) Jose Ramos-Horta repeatedly warned of the likelihood of genocide if the UN observers pulled out of the region in the immediate aftermath of the ballot. (5) The UN Commission on Human Rights noted that in September 1999 Ramos-Horta pointedly compared the situation in East Timor to the Holocaust: `the Jewish Holocaust had taken place for the same reasons as the holocaust in [his] own country -- the powers that be in Europe were guided by realpolitik and pragmatism which turned Europe into a wasteland'. (6)

An assortment of human rights advocates similarly portrayed the conflict as genocide. The Executive Director of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid stated that `Australia must not stand by and witness a genocide on its doorstep'. (7) At the UN Commission on Human Rights, Dr Sarah Pritchard, representing the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, referred to the `crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes which had been committed in East Timor'. (8) At the same Special Session of the Commission, the violence was also identified as genocide by other non-governmental organisations such as the Society for Threatened Peoples and the Association of World Education. (9) David Littman of the Association of World Education drew no distinction between the pre- and post-ballot periods in East Timor, interpreting events as a continuum of genocidal acts:

   There had been -- and there was still -- a clear complicity to commit
   genocide. The same army killed half a million Indonesians for ethnic and
   political reasons in 1965-1966, then imprisoned many more. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.