The Common Good
November-December 1999

East Timor

by Jim Wallis | November-December 1999

A clear moral test

Once again this fall, as in Kosovo last spring, the world was confronted with genocidal massacres in a far-off land. Something terrible happened on the little island of Timor as the world delayed in deciding whether it would do anything about it. That indecision was a clear moral test for the international community, and especially for the NATO allies who had earlier intervened in Kosovo.

After almost 80 percent of the people of East Timor voted in a U.N. referendum to become independent of Indonesia, criminal militias supported by the Indonesian military and police went on a bloody rampage. Hundreds of people were murdered, as many as 200,000 fled their homes, tens of thousands left the country, and an orgy of burning and looting created a scene of "utter destruction," according to eyewitnesses. The capital city of Dili was left in "smoldering ruins," said many observers, after an organized assault that devastated the city’s commercial and residential areas, especially targeting independence leaders. "It’s scorched earth, it’s ethnic cleansing," a U.N. spokesperson told The Washington Post. Others compared the rape of Dili to the 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, by the brutal Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

That was the same year Indonesia’s brutal military invaded East Timor and the world did nothing. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta as the invasion was being prepared but was silent. In the 25 years since, human rights groups have reported that as many as 200,000 East Timorese have died as a result of the military occupation. All the while, Indonesia’s military government remained a staunch U.S. ally—and a recipient of vast amounts of American economic assistance and military aid. Britain and other Western nations followed suit. The United States and its allies looked the other way, preferring "stability" to human rights, benefiting from a relationship with a resource-rich and politically strategic nation with the world’s fourth largest population rather than protecting the lives of a small island people.

When East Timor’s Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo and East Timorese independence activist Jose Ramos Horta won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, the brutally occupied little country finally got some international attention. Hope surged when the results of the U.N.-sponsored referendum were announced on September 4. But then the violence began. Bishop Belo’s residence was attacked and he barely escaped with his life. Jose Ramos Horta was pleading every day with the international community to do something before it was too late. The Washington Post reported that the army and police force, working alongside militia gangs, "seem to have adopted a strategy of letting Timor separate, but only after emptying the province of its population, killing off the political elite, and destroying its basic infrastructure."

As the situation broke, it seemed to me that the moral issue was clear—it was imperative that the United Nations intervene to save lives. But I wondered if perhaps East Timor was too far away, too small, or too Asian for the world to respond. The moral double standard revealed by massive Western intervention in the Balkans but none in Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Tibet, East Timor, etc. was becoming embarrassingly obvious. If Bosnia and Kosovo were clear, why wasn’t East Timor? Maybe the vast natural resources, lucrative economic investments, and strategic political value of powerful Indonesia outweighed the human lives of "only" 800,000 East Timorese?

As I write, our voices are being heard. The Clinton administration and the Pentagon put pressure on the Indonesian government, and the IMF threatened economic withdrawal. Other nations did the same, and the United Nations took a strong leadership role. A peacekeeping force, led by Australia, is being deployed to East Timor, and the militias and Indonesian forces are pulling out.

But how many lives were needlessly lost in the meantime? It was clear as soon as the referendum was announced that a pro-independence vote would result in violence, yet nothing was done. And as the predictable violence began, the response of the nations who led the Kosovo intervention was hesitation.

The deeper problem is that the United States and most of the international community have been culpable for two and half decades of ignoring the injustice done to the people of East Timor. Unless strong economic and political pressure is maintained on the government of Indonesia, unless the Indonesian government and military allow the international peacekeeping force to protect human lives, and unless the fate of a very vulnerable people is put above the desires of a very powerful country, the humanitarian disaster will continue. We now hope and pray for a peaceful resolution of a horrible atrocity, and that the damage already done will not irrevocably impair the future of an independent East Timor.

But it is also important that a critical precedent has been set for further establishing human rights as a standard for collective international intervention. In the post-Cold War world, as ethnic, religious, and nationalist conflicts seem to erupt constantly, these situations will reoccur. Yet the United Nations, whose promise 50 years ago was to bring a lasting peace, is still bound by the principle of national sovereignty. Former undersecretary of the U.N. Brian Urquhart recently wrote, "There needs to be a serious discussion among governments on the Security Council and the rest of the U.N. membership about the council’s role and decision-making process, the principles of U.N. intervention, the balance between national sovereignty and human rights, and the practical means for rapid action to make a reality of the council’s decisions and intentions."

As the situation in East Timor was developing, I spoke at the inaugural "John Howard Yoder Dialogue on Nonviolence, Religion, and Peace" at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In that presentation, I spoke of the need for us to be peacemakers—that peace must be made, not just desired. And peacemaking requires a willingness to step into situations of conflict without always knowing what the outcome will be. That was our experience with Witness for Peace in the 1980s, and it is increasingly true as we enter a new century.

The complexity of the global challenges we now face require a more effective and credible international response and a deeper commitment to peaceful resolution of conflict. Perhaps it is time to implement two complementary ideas: a standing international U.N. response force, coupled with a nonviolent force that could be deployed to situations where violence seems inevitable. A nonviolent force, trained in conflict resolution and in close contact with indigenous people and organizations, along with an international police force, could together be a powerful deterrent to these types of genocidal situations. For if we do not develop a deterrent, we will continue to be appalled at the inhumanity of which humanity is capable.

Dale Aukerman

On September 4, 1999, Dale Aukerman died following a three-year battle with cancer. I’ll always remember that day because it was also the day we baptized our 1-year-old son, Luke. As Luke began his life in the Christian community, Dale ended his on this earth. In the service commemorating Dale, I invoked his memory as a role model for my son and for all of us. I said I didn’t know any Christian who cared more about living consistently and persistently as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Dale Aukerman had a great mind, a warm spirit, and a big heart, which made him one of our best teachers and writers. Who will forget the insight and intensity of his books Darkening Valley or Reckoning With Apocalypse or, for that matter, any conversation with Dale? Following Jesus was the passion of his life and he did it with a faithful single-mindedness rarely seen in the church today. In his last article, published in the July 1999 issue of the Church of the Brethren Messenger, Dale wrote: "It’s not just that I am convinced in my mind that Jesus is risen. I have found again and again that this living Lord comes to me. I have not seen the risen Jesus with my eyes or touched him with my hands as the disciples did. But throughout my life, he has met me, directed me, rebuked me, inspired me."

I had the blessing of many talks with Dale, of planting trees with him at his beloved Maryland farm, of being arrested with him in Washington, D.C., for acts of peacemaking. We often had the joy of worshipping with Dale and his wonderful wife, Ruth, and their children, Daniel, Miriam, and Maren in the Sojourners Community. At his memorial service, I said that, for Sojourners Community, "Dale was always a friend, often an inspiration, sometimes a challenge, and consistently a prophetic witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ."

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. A portion of this column appeared on the MSNBC Web site.

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