EAST TIMOR: lessons and implications.

AuthorGoff, Phil

Phil Goff examines New Zealand's policy towards East Timor and considers what role it might play in resolving the situation.

As the Kosovo crisis drags on, the attention of New Zealand and the world and the focus of the media has been predominantly not on East Timor but on the Balkans. We have from our lounges witnessed the bombing, the awfulness of ethnic cleansing and the tragedy of the refugees and the stories they bring with them. We have wondered whether NATO, albeit out of the best of motives, might have facilitated the opposite to what it sought to achieve -- the wholesale expulsion of the Kosovo Albanians and the entrenching of Serb patriotic support for their leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

The contrast, rather than the parallels, between Kosovo and East Timor are probably what stand out most. Western democracies through NATO felt impelled to intervene first diplomatically and then militarily, and on a massive scale, to put an end to abuses of human rights in Kosovo. When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and through the subsequent genocide, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese died as a result of fighting and starvation. Yet hardly a voice was raised in protest, let alone the use of force considered to put a wrong to right.

Far from welcoming refugees from East Timor here, our government in the late 1970s refused a visa to Jose Ramos Horta to stop him exposing and condemning what was happening to his people. Far from joining in international condemnation of invasion, forced annexation and repeated violations of human rights, New Zealand, Australia and others first abstained on and then voted against United Nations resolutions calling for an act of self-determination in East Timor.

New Zealand supports the human rights provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In regard to East Timor, we barely gave lip service to the great documents we signed in the aftermath of the Second World War. What lessons had we learned from a war fought so that democracy might prevail over totalitarianism, international law over armed aggression?

Consistent advice

To analyse New Zealand's past policy toward East Timor, I have studied several hundred pages of documents secured from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the Official Information Act. Those documents record the advice given by that Ministry to successive governments over two decades. It is remarkably consistent.

The starting point of that advice, in February 1975, was that while New Zealand believed in the right of the Timorese to self-determination, it thought that East Timor's best option was to integrate with Indonesia. More fundamentally, it was clear from the beginning that whatever concern New Zealand might have for the rights and the plight of the East Timorese, this concern would be subordinated to the desire to maintain good relations with Indonesia.

In a memorandum to the Prime Minister dated 10 December 1975, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs put it plainly: `New Zealand has a strong interest in maintaining good relations with Indonesia even if this might on occasion require some measure of compromise on matters of principle.' That `measure of compromise' was time and again reflected in New Zealand's public response to what was happening in East Timor. We responded to the invasion of that country simply by expressing `regret' at Indonesia's actions. When a New Zealander along with a Channel 7 television crew were killed by Indonesian forces, we declined to pursue a claim against Indonesia because, as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs put it on 29 June 1976, `to do so would harm our relations with Indonesia'.

The advice given to the incoming Labour government, of which I was a...

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