Home > Commentary > Amnesty Ireland Reject Impunity in Timor Leste

Amnesty Ireland Reject Impunity in Timor Leste

ETAs we approach the tenth anniversary of Timor Leste’s tumultuous vote for independence from Indonesia after twenty-six years of brutal repression, both the Irish Times and the executive director of Amnesty International in Ireland have made well-intentioned but essentially misguided demand for an international tribunal for Timor Leste to punish crimes committed by Indonesia (“Timor Leste accused of forsaking justice for sake of reconciliation”, August 28) . While the failure of the international community to press for a full international tribunal in 1999 was both regrettable and counter-productive, two democratically elected and representative governments of the sort Timor activists fought so long to establish have decided to eschew the metaphysical benefits of justice (and what punishment can ever be proportionate to what happened?) to maintain good relations with an Indonesian behemoth that dwarves it in size and power and on which it remains financially dependent. In so doing, they have been amply assisted by the international community, keen to bolster Indonesia’s fragile but ever-stronger democracy and unwilling to alienate a key ally in the Global War on Terror. The Dili government is far from alone in choosing the guaranteed benefits of reconciliation over the quixotic pursuit of justice through inefficient and slow international tribunals, even if there were a possibility that the UN would undergo the expense and trouble of pursuing justice in so marginal a location. The choice to abjure accountability is one that has been made in countless Latin American, Eastern European and African transitions, for better or worse.

Given the chronic instability noted in the piece (widespread unrest in 2006 and attempted assassinations of the President and Prime Minister in 2008) and the precarious nature of the Timorese urban and rural economies, one must understand this policy decision to maintain necessary trading relations and to keep Indonesia itself stable over calls for an international tribunal. In reality, the violence in 2006 and attempted assassinations in 2008 have little relation to the Indonesia issue or the divisions of the occupation and instead represent the awkward beginnings of a democratic, rights-respecting polity in a desperately poor state. As such, it behoves Ireland to respect the will of Timor Leste’s elected representatives, distasteful as impunity may seem to us and no doubt to the Timorese themselves. While the executive director of Amnesty in Ireland, says Ireland should “use its influence to demand an international criminal tribunal to secure justice for the Timorese people”, we should only do so if this is reflects the clear will of the Timorese population who remain ore concerned with more prosaic matters like feeding themselves, finding employment and developing a sustainable economy. Ireland’s own extravagant clemency towards IRA criminality in the interests of reconciliation should at least suggest we might more profitably inspect the plank in our own eyes than the speck of sawdust in Dili’s. Finally, one can only echo the opinion expressed by the Amnesty that in view of our own economic difficulties it would be regrettable if Ireland’s laudable legacy of aid and assistance was damaged by expedient cuts in the aid budget.

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  1. Diarmuid
    September 3, 2009 at 10:23 am

    The contrast between the lack of an IRA justice tribunal and our stance on other countries pursuing tribunals is an very good point. I never even thought of the link.

  2. pmcauliffe
    September 3, 2009 at 10:31 am

    It’s another example of Irish assertivenes on the international stage in terms of promoting human rights abroad coupled with a rather laggardly approach to abiding full by those principles domestically

    • GSadlier
      September 3, 2009 at 12:31 pm

      I applaud your critique of international tribunals in transitional societies, a critique which should be given more general application.

      But is there really an analogy to Ireland?

      Let’s face it, at its worst, Ireland was still a democratic polity, a society where the rule of law was maintained and where the courts system continued to function against “terrorist” and “police man” alike.

      This is particularly true of the N.I. courts, who in marked contrast to the ECTHR (which gave its landmark judgments on the North only after the troubles had ceased, making them easy cases to decide) continued to maintain the standards of legality through out the troubles under very difficult circumstances.

      Granted, attrocities were committed on both sides.

      Without in any way seeking to minimize the absolute horror of such crimes, I would point out that the problem of unsolved crime is not relegated to areas of conflict.

      The murder which goes unsolved in peace-time is surely of equal gravity but no one would suggest that an international tribunal be set up to deal with it.

      Maybe you feel that a tribunal is necessary because some parties to the conflict do not trust the institutions of the state (North or South), for whatever reason.

      But if distrust runs so deep, why would they trust a tribunal which the Irish and British Governments will inevitably have had a hand in appointing?

      Even if they do trust the tribunal, will they be prepared to give evidence, in the knowledge that “big brother” will still be there, in the form of the domestic governmental institutions, long after the globe trotting do gooders who usually seem to make up these tribunals have gone home?

      The truth is that a tribunal was avoided for sound political reasons (what would have come out in the wash).

      Our refusal can nevertheless be justified as a matter of principle (state sovereignty, recognition of the legitimacy of state institutions, a major part of peace process) and practical considerations (opening up old wounds, tribunal’s likely lack of institutional compotance).

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