Light Candles or Curse the Darkness: East Timor Turns the Century

“Militaries that are doing something bad sometimes go into their shell. It’s them against the world.”
– Admiral Dennis Blair, CinC U.S. Pacific Command, on the Indonesian Armed Forces, in 1999.
“ … cutting off contact with Indonesian officers only makes the problem worse”
– Paul Wolfowitz
“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
– Confucius

- a book report by Jamie Arbuckle for Peacehawks:

If You Leave us Here, We Will Die – How Genocide was Stopped in East Timor, by Geoffrey Robinson, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2010, 317 pages, $35


This book tells of the terrible and the wonderful events in East Timor, centred on but not limited to the years 1999- 2000, and of the candles that were lit then. For us the messages in this book are three, and they bear directly on our central belief that peace must be maintained at least as robustly as it is violated. These three messages concern:

1. The uses of humanitarian intervention, and the military role in such interventions;

2. The issue of consent, especially that of the Security Council, of the major powers and of the “host” government, to an intervention;

3. The relationship of peace to justice – can there be one without the other?

Geoffrey Robinson is that most valuable combination of practitioner and academic, and his book is given dramatic thrust by the fact that he was an eye-witness to much of the action of that critical year, as he was at that time a political affairs officer with the UN mission in East Timor. Reading between his lines with your accustomed skill, you will infer as did we that he and his colleagues were brave to a degree way beyond his spare descriptions of the hazards they faced. He is in “real life” a professor of history at UCLA, and he was six years with the headquarters of Amnesty International in London. He is thus well able to zoom in for the detail, and then back seamlessly out to the wider time-frame and perspective. He is a superb writer, and this book is both an invaluable reference, and a cracking good read.

The UN had established an observer mission in East Timor, UNAMET, on 11 June 1999. This mission was entirely unarmed, which made them a subject of mockery to the local militias and the Indonesian soldiers. As security had been left in the hands of the Indonesian armed forces, the UN was soon unable to cope with the rising tide of violence which was orchestrated by the very people charged with preventing it, and the mission had to be evacuated on 13 September. By that time, 1,500 East Timorese had been brutally murdered, at least 400,000 had been forced from their homes, and over 70% of the country’s infrastructure had been utterly destroyed. Two days later, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1264, acting under the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, authorizing a multinational peace enforcement mission – the International Force for East Timor (Interfet). Led by Australia, with contingents from New Zealand, Malyasia, Thailand and the Phillipines, the Force began to deploy within one week and, in Robinson’s laconic words, immediately began “rounding up militias, and in some cases killing them.” By the end of the month, the violence had largely ended. Eventually 22 nations contributed to Interfet, which grew to over 11,000 strong. Five months later, on 28 February 2000, Interfet handed over to the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

These events of 1999 were in many respects a continuation of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in November 1975, as a result of which in the next four years nearly one-tenth of the East Timorese population (of about 1 million) died by violence. In addition, by 1979 nearly one half of the population had been forcibly relocated to “secure” camps, where they were being starved and worked to death. That 1975 invasion was itself a continuation of an “anti-communist” campaign unleashed by Suharto in 1965, in which nearly 1 million Indonesians and East Timorese died and over 500,000 were imprisoned. All this, in the 60s and in the 70s, was met with the ringing silence of the “international community.” Both these holocausts more than justified the use of the term genocide, but that was not to be the last genocide on which the world kept silent. Robinson leaves us in no doubt what the consequences of further international inaction in East Timor would have been.

Robinson delivers an excellent “both sides now” summary of the arguments for and against intervention, especially with a military component: some “take the view that military force is never an appropriate means to achieve humanitarian objectives”; others “claim that the use of military force may be the only meaningful way to ensure an effective humanitarian response and prevent a government from abusing people under its sovereign control.” (italics added) Adapting the definition of a complex humanitarian emergency as violent conflict resulting from natural or man-made disaster, Robinson notes that such events are seldom entirely natural; more often they are “bound up with questions of political and military power.” The argument then develops further along the lines of those who, on the one hand, would defend state sovereignty from dilution, as they contend it would be in the case of unwanted external intervention, versus those on the other hand “who see … the constraint on state sovereignty as a positive development.” Robinson tentatively concludes that “the opponents of intervention may be missing the point”: while the arguments for and the conduct of intervention may be misguided, it does not follow that all interventions “are morally wrong or examples of neoimperialism.” He concludes by asking if the genocide of the 1970s is “really preferable to the intervention of 1999?” In other words, where there is a question of power, whose power is preferred: that of the perpetrators, unchecked, or that of the international community, appropriately mandated and controlled?

There were two other popular perceptions acting as a brake on high-level backing for a military – i.e. a peace enforcement – mission: the first was the assumed time lapse before deployment might be completed; the second was the efficacy of external military forces in a humanitarian operation. As we have seen, both of these turned out to be misperceptions.

Robinson concludes: “… the evidence from East Timor serves as a reminder that one of the few demonstrably successful mechanisms for bringing an end to mass violence, including genocide, is direct military intervention by outside powers.”

But Robinson is realistic, and he stresses how delicate and rare might be the political conditions for launching such an intervention, so we will turn now to discussion of the consent issue.


Ingrid Lehmann has written (Peacekeeping and Public Information – Caught in the Crossfire) that, “in the new, complex operations, consent implies popular support or acquiescence, even in non-democratic or transitional societies”. She adds that there are at least three areas in which consent – i.e. general support for a peacekeeping operation – should exist for it to be carried out successfully, and these are in the countries in which the UN force is deployed; in the troop contributing countries; and in the countries that pay the largest share of the bill for peacekeeping. Until the terrible events of September 1999, with East Timor threatened with another round of genocide, none of the above forms of consent had been available in any form in any organization or nation – not in 1965, and not in 1975.

Already in the case of the clearly apprehended genocide in 1974-75, several major nations had conspired to remain publicly silent, and passively (by their silence) or actively (by their continuing support) signaled to the Indonesian government that “its unlawful intervention would bear no serious political or economic cost.” Australia was explicit: speaking in Parliament in August 1975, the Prime Minister voiced his government’s understanding for “Indonesia’s concern that the territory (East Timor) should not be allowed to become a source of instability on Indonesia’s border.” This in fact provided Indonesia with the rationale they would adopt to justify their “intervention.” But the Americans then went further than that, as Robinson makes clear. In a meeting in Jakarta in December 1975, President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger assured President Suharto that they “understood Indonesia’s ‘problem’ and ‘intentions’ in East Timor, and would not object if Indonesia found it necessary to take ‘drastic action’ there.” Kissinger discussed with Suharto how “we” might evade U.S. law which explicitly forbad arms sales to Indonesia; those sales quintupled in 1974-75. Finally, Ford and Kissinger discussed with Suharto how this might be “spun”, by refraining from action until Ford and Kissinger returned to Washington and could prevent “unauthorized” discussion of the issue. Indonesia launched its invasion and unleashed its genocide in East Timor 24 hours after that meeting.

In 1975 the Americans were also active in the UN to avoid any obstacles there to Indonesian action in East Timor. Daniel Moynahin, who was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. then, wrote in 1976, “The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.” (Moynahin had in the Sixties coined the phrase “benign neglect” for his then boss, Richard Nixon.) As we know, American suppression of UN discussion of another genocide would recur 20 years later, with similar odious results.

By 1999 the United States had still not entirely lived down their debacle in Somalia in 1993 (when a group of U.S. Rangers and Delta Force troops died in an attempt to capture Mohammed Farah Aidid); even blaming it on the United Nations didn’t really help. This experience, combined with memories of Vietnam, was described by Richard Holbrooke as the “Vietmalia Sydrome”. This we define as distorting the facts, drawing the wrong lessons and sticking to them no matter what. No one who has studied or been close to the American military around the turn of the century can have been in any doubt about their loathing for “peace support operations” (the term peacekeeping having been explicitly forbidden).

The Vietmalia Syndrome found official expression in the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine. Jointly authored by Secretary of Defence Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Powell, this consisted of an ultra-conservative body of checks on the use of the U.S. military, which was formalized as Presidential Decision Directive (P.D.D.) 25 on 3 May 1994. Very briefly, P.D.D. 25 demanded that a military deployment advance U.S. interests, and be a response to a valid threat to international security. In the case of a peacekeeping operation, there should be a cease-fire and the consent of the parties in conflict; in the case of a peace enforcement operation, there must be a significant threat. Adequate means to support the operation must be available from the outset, the consequences of inaction must be clearly unacceptable and –the bottom line – there must be a realistic criteria for concluding the operation (the exit strategy). The problem with this neat formulation is that a complex humanitarian emergency is so complex just in that there are seldom any clear answers to most of the above points. One analyst called it “a checklist for doing nothing”, and that is just about how it worked in Rwanda in 1994, and in East Timor up to September 1999.

The United Nations, for their part, expressed their traditional horror of non-consensual peace operations – to them, especially in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), which was where that buck would stop, the consent of the “host nation” was the sine qua non of an operation, even one launched as peace enforcement. This was sound doctrine, and true in the majority of cases, but over the years it had become dogma, which is something else. As dogma, the consent issue had been cast in stone, and non-consensual operations were simply unthinkable to the theologians of Turtle Bay. DPKO called such an operation, that is, the deployment of peacekeepers without Indonesian consent, “impossible” and “unrealistic”. The more “cost effective approach”, New York patiently explained, was “to insist that the Indonesian authorities live up to their obligations for maintaining peace and security.” When their UN Secretariat rivals in the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) circulated a planning document in July 1999, DPKO insisted on the deletion from it of all references to peacekeepers. No such operation could be undertaken without Indonesian consent, they said, and at any rate a peacekeeping force could not be deployed in less than three to five months. That it was also largely beyond the competence of DPKO to mount and to control such an operation unfortunately needed no debate. The Americans, clutching their PDD 25 like a missal, said as late as August that “peacekeepers were not an option.” This, coming from a Permanent Member of the Security Council, was a clear sign of an intention to veto any UN action; this was almost always enough to prevent any discussion of the issue.

But, as we know, one month later a peace enforcement mission was deployed, having moved in and set up in about one week; one week after that, and the violence was mostly in check. What happened, and so quickly, to change so many so firmly buttoned down minds?

Firstly, there was a reaction to the Vietmalia Syndrome, and it might be called the “never again” movement – the collective conscience of the international community, and indeed of some of its most powerful members, remained profoundly disturbed by memories of Srebrenica and Rwanda, and there had been some pretty hard-nosed action over Kosovo that very summer. This latter action, despite the controversy over the lack of a UN mandate, had almost certainly prevented a genocide there and led to the establishment of a UN peace mission in Kosovo.

Secondly, the chiefest leader of the never-again faction was the charismatic Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, who fearlessly and tirelessly expressed his “strong belief that claims of national sovereignty must not be allowed to stand in the way of effective international action in defense of human rights.” Indonesia was urged to accept the “help” needed to bring the situation under control and to avert further tragedy.

Thirdly, journalists and NGOs around the world reported a ground swell of public revulsion against Indonesian actions in East Timor, and this fed and reinforced the more formal power structures and figures at the UN and in critical member states. The Secretary General referred specifically to this phenomenon, speaking on 10 September of “the thousands of messages I have received from all over the world in the past few days, that many people believe the United Nations is abandoning the people of East Timor in their hour of greatest need. Let me assure you emphatically that is not the case”. (The Australians for their part needed little persuading; they were so quick off the mark with their Interfet contingent in September because they had been preparing their troops since July.)

Fourth, President Clinton (the same one who had five years before issued PDD 25), undoubtedly influenced by the apparent success-in-progress in Kosovo, plus all of the above, made his turn-around on 12 September, stating that the US was prepared to support an international armed force in East Timor, announcing the suspension of all military relations with and supplies to Indonesia, and threatening to withhold US support for International Monetary Fund or World Bank assistance to Indonesia. He accused the Indonesians directly of aiding and abetting militia violence in East Timor. This was of course a major policy change by a major actor, which signaled clearly that the previously unthinkable was that no longer.

Fifth, the international community felt keenly the insult of assaults on a UN mission, and the betrayal of solemn undertakings of the Indonesian government to respect and support the United Nations.

But one of the most critical components of the turn-around was the simple courage of the East Timorese, who so impressed the UN personnel in East Timor that they refused an 8 September order from New York to evacuate the mission, which would have entailed leaving behind some 1,500 East Timorese who had taken refuge in the UN compound in Dili – “If you leave us here, we will die.” But this was not the Hotel Rwanda, and the UNMET staff did not leave for Darwin until 13 September, with the 1500 . This was mutiny, and it paid off.

It might be said, then (but it was not said by Professor Robinson), that the East Timorese were saved by the Bosnians, the Rwandans and the East Timorese.

And so it developed that, like Slobodan Milosevic earlier that summer, President Habibie of Indonesia had overplayed a weak hand. On 12 September, the day of the Clinton turn-around speech, he urged his senior officers and his cabinet to accept international intervention, and on that same day he formally notified the Secretary General of his government’s decision to “invite” an international peacekeeping force to enter East Timor “to assist in restoring security.”

Ironically, the Interfet operation was undertaken with the consent of the “hosts”, but this only serves to illustrate our point, made elsewhere, that consent is not an absolute, nor can it be taken to arise only spontaneously and voluntarily. Consent may have to be created, it may be induced, it may even have to be coerced – and all of the above seem to have been applied to arrive at Indonesian government consent to external “assistance.”


There is a view that peace must be more than the absence of war or fighting, and that peace must include justice. There is a contrary view that the search for justice holds open or re-opens old wounds, provides no incentive for the accused to accept peace as a solution and may indeed re-ignite conflict. This dichotomy was enacted dramatically in East Timor.

Robinson describes how the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR), mostly working through various Community Reconciliation Process (CRP) local hearings, much preferred restorative to retributive justice. The aim of this form of justice was to allow perpetrators to make amends for their crimes in order that they might be reintegrated into their communities, rather than to live as outcasts, and to allow the community to heal and to regain cohesion. This was said by those who participated in these processes to have indeed been important to and largely successful in healing, forgiving and moving on.

Not all felt this way, however: those who had suffered from the more serious crimes of kidnapping, mutilation and murder (of friends and family) were often not satisfied with the relatively mild punishments handed down by the CRPs. There was deep resentment that the CRPs had tried smaller, local fish, while the overall perpetrators of the campaign of violence, who were mostly Indonesians of high civil and military rank, walked free. The Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF), ostensibly established to heal relations between East Timor and Indonesia, was derided as a whitewash, and was largely shunned by many local organizations and by the United Nations. Surprisingly, however, the CTF final report did not grant any amnesties. Nevertheless, there have been to date no prosecutions for crimes against humanity in East Timor, and the international community is most uneasy with the signal that may be sending to current and future perpetrators of outrages. Robinson makes compellingly the case for an international criminal tribunal “to try those responsible for the crimes committed in East Timor between 1974 and 1999.”

Restorative justice is a laudable approach, especially at the community level. There will remain, however, the need to enact a higher, stricter form of justice, in no small part to reinforce respect for laws and norms vital to peace and security – pour encourager les autres. Peace is more than the absence of war, it must include justice – and justice carries a sword.


The state of Indonesia had not failed in 1999, but the state of Indonesian governance in East Timor had failed utterly. The responsibility of the international community to protect the people of East Timor from the depredations of Indonesia went beyond knee-jerk defenses of sovereignty, or equally shallow indictments of intervention. Indonesian “sovereignty” over East Timor, as it has elsewhere so often been, was simply a blind behind which the East Timorese were cruelly exploited and would have eventually been destroyed – another genocide was clearly in the making in East Timor in 1999. A world so conscience-stricken over Bosnia and Rwanda nearly slipped up again. That we did not do so holds many lessons, and this book is just one of those candles that have been lit for us. By that light, Professor Robinson leads us to a more nuanced and better structured discussion of intervention, especially using military force, he shows us how complex and fragile the consent issue can be, and he brings us to think perhaps more carefully than we have about the relationship of justice to peace.

We should be deeply grateful to Geoffrey Robinson and his colleagues for representing what is best in us, and for matching up to the courage of the East Timorese. It is too painful to think how easily it might have been otherwise, and how very nearly we let it be so.

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