Timorous Invasion

When the UN stopped a genocide in East Timor in 1999, liberals hoped it would be a watershed moment for the cause of humanitarian interventionism. It was, instead, the movement’s high-water mark.

By Joshua Kurlantzick

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“If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die”: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor
by Geoffrey Robinson
Princeton University Press, 340 pp.

 hen I arrived in Dili, capital of the new nation of Timor Leste (East Timor), in early 2006, much of the town still looked like a war had just ended. Shells of burned-out buildings lined the roads, some still pocked with bullet holes. In the hills outside the capital, where groups of displaced people lived in shacks, young children begged for food whenever my friend and I stopped our 4x4. At night, Dili turned into a menacing ghost town, its empty streets patrolled by young men armed with knives and makeshift guns.

That Timor had not yet recovered was hardly surprising. Seven years earlier, in 1999, after the former Portuguese colony occupied by Indonesia since 1975 had voted in a referendum for its independence, pro-Indonesia militias razed the tiny half island. The campaign of slaughter would not have been out of place in the Rwandan genocide or the brutal West African wars: gangs of militiamen wielding machetes and automatic weapons hacked, disemboweled, and beheaded known independence supporters, aid workers, journalists, and anyone who happened to be in their way at the wrong time. Thousands died, 70 percent of Timor’s infrastructure was destroyed, and nearly half the population of East Timor fled their homes and wound up as refugees.

And yet, as longtime Timor observer and former United Nations official Geoffrey Robinson shows in his meticulously researched and powerful new book, “If You Leave Us Here We Will Die”: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor, for all the blood spilled on the tropical half island in 1999, East Timor then also seemed like a watershed. Despite having minimal strategic interests in East Timor, major powers like the United States and the United Kingdom backed an armed humanitarian intervention that, under the auspices of the United Nations, ultimately stemmed the violence and, in the long run, allowed Timor to finally break from Indonesia and build its own state. Robinson suggests that the armed intervention might even have prevented an all-out genocide in Timor in 1999. “There was an unusual openness [at the time] to the idea of international humanitarian intervention and—particularly after the NATO operation in Kosovo in mid-1999—a sense that such interventions could succeed,” he recalls.

In fact, at the time many human rights activists and liberal policymakers in the West thought that Timor, like the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo earlier in 1999, would be just the first of many such missions. With the Cold War over and superpower conflict seemingly on the wane, new technology bringing coverage of abuses to a wider audience in the West, and a new alliance between liberals and conservatives over the need for aggressive humanitarian intervention, the era of Western powers standing by as massacres like Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda, or Srebrenica took place could be over.

Ten years later, unfortunately, those hopes seem almost quaint. Turns out East Timor wasn’t a watershed moment in humanitarian interventionism so much as its high-water mark. As great power conflict once again has emerged, the war in Iraq has soured liberal politicians—and much of the American public—on the use of force, and the war on terror has forced governments to make serious compromises with autocrats once again, the 1999 Timor intervention now seems like a long, long time ago.

 he violence that exploded in East Timor in 1999 was hardly unexpected. At the time, Robinson was serving as a political affairs officer for the United Nations Mission in East Timor, and in the months before the August 30, 1999, referendum, he and his coworkers saw many signs that the powerful Indonesian military, working with and clandestinely arming Timorese who did not want independence, were preparing for a massacre if the population did not vote for integration with Indonesia. In one of many similar incidents Robinson remembers, before the vote pro-integration militias surrounded a group of people sheltering in a Catholic church in the Timorese town of Liquica, and then rushed inside, hacking and shooting people; at least fifty died.

That the independence side would triumph also seemed assured. After hundreds of years as a sleepy backwater of Portugal’s colonial empire, in the mid-1970s, as Lisbon released its last colonial possessions, a Timorese independence movement sprung up, led by men such as Xanana Gusmão, who would become a guerilla leader during the era of Indonesian rule and, later, the first president of an independent East Timor. But in 1975, Indonesia invaded, with the tacit consent of the United States and other powers, including the regional power, Australia. In a meeting with the Indonesian dictator Suharto at the time, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made clear they would not stand in the way. “Whatever you do,” Kissinger told Suharto, according to documents later released through the freedom of information process, “we will try to handle it in the best way possible.” After taking tiny East Timor by force, Indonesia launched a brutal military occupation. According to Robinson’s estimate, as many as 200,000 East Timorese died from the occupation in the late 1970s, close to half of the population at the time. But with the world divided by the Cold War, Indochina just having fallen to Communists, and Suharto accusing Timorese independence advocates of leftist ties, the West still said little about Jakarta’s unlawful occupation.

By 1999, however, Suharto was gone and Indonesia itself had begun to change. The previous year, the Asian financial crisis had decimated Indonesia’s economy, triggering massive street protests. Suharto was forced to hand power to Vice President B. J. Habibie, who put Indonesia on a path toward democracy and declared that East Timor would be allowed to hold a referendum on continued integration or independence. Habibie, and the Indonesian military, may have believed that, combined with intimidation tactics, enough Timorese genuinely supported Indonesian rule that the integration side would triumph. But like most colonizers, they were terribly wrong about local loyalty. Remembering twenty-five years of Indonesian brutality, on voting day Timorese dressed up in their Sunday best and turned out in massive numbers. More than 98 percent of eligible Timorese voted, and the independence side triumphed, taking over 78 percent of the poll.

Almost immediately after the vote, the bloodshed began. Militias stabbed to death a local UN employee, and when Robinson and his colleagues went to retrieve the body, armed militiamen and Indonesian soldiers surrounded them, and the UN workers fled the scene—helped by the fact that, at that point, the militias seemed less willing to attack foreign UN employees. Militias and soldiers began to torch buildings in Dili and other towns, killing inhabitants as they escaped the flames. Timorese began fleeing into the hills outside the city or to churches, where militias hunted them down and stabbed and hacked them to death, leaving corpses lying around the church compounds. Militiamen attacked relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders and shot at UN staff; within days, Robinson found, “Dili was a flattened, smoking ruin.” The killing continued to spiral, though it was not the frenzied, uncontrolled rage it seemed to be at first. As Robinson notes, in every town in Timor the violence proceeded along a set pattern that seemed to be preordained. Often, as in the Rwandan genocide, the militiamen arrived in towns carrying lists of potential targets to kill. Later, Robinson and other observers would uncover clear evidence showing that Indonesian army officers had conspired to arm the militias and organize their killings.

Many Timorese, who remembered how the world had stood by as Indonesian forces massacred them in the late 1970s, expected the same treatment this time. Sister Esmerelda, a nun sheltering refugees after the 1999 vote, faced down a group of UN officers on the ground who seemed ready to evacuate in the face of militia violence. “We are not surprised that you plan to leave us now,” she said. “We are used to being abandoned in our times of greatest need.”

But times had changed. Unlike in the 1970s, now the world paid attention. Within days after the post-vote killing, key states began to pressure Indonesia to help restore order in Timor; when Jakarta clearly could not (or would not), the major powers, working through the UN, called for an armed humanitarian intervention led by Australia, a neighboring country with a sizable Timorese exile community and other ties to East Timor. Australia contributed more than half the troops to the force, and other developed nations joined in. “Now it is clear that the Indonesian military has aided and abetted militia violence in East Timor,” declared President Bill Clinton. “We are ready … to mobilize a multinational force.” Within a week of a resolution authorizing the force, the UN, led by Australia, had landed armed peacekeepers on the ground in Timor. Even Indonesian neighbors like Malaysia, once wary of alienating another Southeast Asian country, contributed to the force. These trained and committed troops quickly restored order, and the violence subsided, allowing relief organizations to arrive in Timor and prevent famine and disease outbreaks. Without this intervention, Robinson notes, “In all likelihood we would now be speaking not of fifteen hundred dead but rather tens of thousands.”

 hy did the world move so quickly and forcefully in East Timor, when it had vainly vowed “never again” in the face of mass killing so many times before? While in the late 1970s the Timor massacres had barely registered in the West, now journalists on the ground in Dili could use their satellite phones to quickly beam stories and photos of the violence to Western news outlets. Suddenly, once obscure Timor was the top story in newspapers, Internet sites, and newswires around the world. In the years since the 1970s, a dedicated and well-organized Timor human rights network had grown up, headquartered in Australia and other countries, and they made sure the Timor stories and searing television images quickly got into the hands of prominent Western politicians, and organized pressure groups to descend on Whitehall and Congress. “Through this unprecedented media reporting, ordinary people who had never heard of East Timor became aware of it, while church, human rights, and activist groups pointed to [the reporting] as definitive evidence that something must be done,” Robinson writes. It worked. As one senior Western diplomat told Robinson, his country’s decision to back intervention “was not driven by realpolitik but by reactions to images on the television.”

On the ground in Timor, UN employees, burned by criticism of the organization for its powerlessness in Rwanda and the Balkans, stood tough. When some officials at headquarters in New York suggested a total evacuation of foreign UN employees from Timor, essentially leaving the refugees holed up in the UN compound to their fates, staff in Dili refused to leave, Robinson notes, putting pressure on Turtle Bay to act. Within the UN headquarters, too, top leaders embarrassed by Rwanda, where Kofi Annan had been in charge of peacekeeping, had begun to embrace the idea of armed interventions. From early in the Timor crisis, Annan, now secretary-general, stood forcefully by the UN staff on the ground, declining to order an evacuation that would have abandoned the 1,500 refugees in the UN compound in Dili. Later, Annan used his bully pulpit and private diplomacy to convince Security Council members to sign onto an intervention.

But the UN has no power on its own, and its leaders—most importantly, the U.S.—stood behind the Timor force. If during the Cold War the idea of humanitarian intervention had seemed like a luxury Washington could not afford, it now seemed like a luxury worth having. With the economies of the U.S. and Australia soaring and a world ready for the End of History blossoming of peaceful democracies, suddenly a situation like Timor—or Kosovo—appeared to be what armed force now would be used for.

Meanwhile, liberals, who since the Vietnam War had linked military intervention to a kind of neoimperialism and rights abuses, could now support the use of force. A new generation of liberal internationalists, like Samantha Power and Michael Ignatieff, supported the use of force and called for a doctrine backing intervening to prevent crimes against humanity. This call ultimately would result in the idea of the Responsibility to Protect, a set of principles promoted by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and debated at the UN about when it was acceptable for the world to violate a country’s sovereignty and send troops in to prevent horrific crimes. By the beginning of the third millennium the Responsibility to Protect seemed like it would become an accepted part of international law.

And if America backed an intervention in 1999, who would stop it? Russia and China did not welcome the Timor force, but at the time Moscow teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and Beijing still had not fully recovered from the stain of the Tiananmen massacre. Indonesia would, at first, protest the multinational intervention, but absent its once vital role in the Cold War, Jakarta had become just another developing country with limited power.

Perhaps most important, the Timor intervention, like Kosovo, seemed to come at little cost to the international community. These campaigns appeared to be clear, rapid triumphs. The UN began to consider building a sizable permanent rapid reaction armed peacekeeping force, to be deployed to hotspots as needed. The organization sent one of its most capable diplomats, Sergio Vieira de Mello, to Timor as the proconsul in charge of rebuilding.

 auded for his Timor work, de Mello was sent to Iraq, where in 2003 he died in the massive bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Vieira de Mello’s death was, in many ways, symbolic. The shaky international consensus for intervention that had existed in the late 1990s, too, was shattered by the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. Many liberal interventionists, like Michael Ignatieff and Peter Beinart, had supported the Iraq War as a logical extension of some of the arguments for humanitarian intervention made in the 1990s, even though there was no imminent humanitarian disaster looming in Iraq as there had been in Timor or Kosovo. But when the Iraq War turned into a nightmare, it not only stained the reputations of neoconservatives who had pushed for the invasion, but left many liberal interventionists feeling embarrassed, burned, and wondering whether humanitarian claims increasingly would be used as facile reasons to support interventions that really were about other priorities. In a prominent New York Times op-ed published in 2008, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who during the Clinton administration had presided over the Timor and Kosovo forces, bluntly declared “the end of intervention.” Ignatieff, who would go on to be the Liberal Party leader in Canada, warned that “humanitarian intervention is no longer in the frame for any Western state,” and declared that his initial support of the Iraq War, on humanitarian grounds, was a terrible mistake.

The looting and slaughter that descended on Iraq, combined with photos of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib and disclosures of sanctioned CIA torture, also cost the United States the moral high ground, a loss exploited by dictators repressing their own people. When Western human rights advocates began pushing, in the mid-2000s, for intervention in the genocide in Darfur, the Sudanese government countered that an imperialistic foreign power, as in Iraq, wanted to meddle in a Muslim land again. And unlike the Indonesian government in 1999, now Khartoum got a hearing. Though the International Criminal Court had indicted Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity, the Arab League welcomed him at summits like a visiting king. Even prominent scholars in the West, like Columbia professor Mahmood Mamdani, essentially echoed Khartoum’s claims. In a widely acclaimed book, Mamdani compared the Save Darfur movement to a recolonization of Africa and suggested that the push for intervention was a part of the Bush administration’s campaign to dominate the Arab-Muslim world.

The postintervention chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan also showed Western interventionists that the initial joy—the arrival of peacekeepers in Timor, the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad, the withdrawal of Serb forces in Kosovo—would be followed by years of bloody and expensive reconstruction and nation-building, which few Western nations had the stomach for. Timor seemed easy; Iraq and Afghanistan anything but. These massive reconstruction projects drained Western treasuries—Iraq alone has cost over $900 billion in U.S. taxpayer money—and, understandably, made Western publics wary of future interventions.

Other changing global trends also contributed to the death of intervention. Ten years after Timor, the world no longer paid as much attention to remote war zones. With news reporting budgets slashed to the bone, the global economic meltdown focusing attention on jobs and unemployment at home, and the Internet mostly making the West more interested in itself, the kind of large-scale foreign coverage like Timor in 1999, requiring many reporters, security guards, and transport, became rarer and rarer. Even major wars like Afghanistan received scant coverage from most news organizations, and remote battles went totally ignored. The war in the Congo has, to date, consumed more than three million lives, but it rarely even receives a mention in Western news outlets. And this lack of reliable information has complicated the work of human rights NGOs and pressure groups, the types of organizations that, in 1999, rapidly brought the Timor crisis to the attention of Western policymakers.

By the time of the Darfur slaughter, too, America’s unipolar moment had ended. Even if, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the West still wanted to intervene to stop a massacre, it now faced a new superpower, China, one that has made the upholding of state sovereignty its core foreign policy principle, primarily because Beijing does not want other nations meddling in Tibet, Xinjiang, or Taiwan. From Darfur to Iran to Uzbekistan to Burma, China—usually joined by a resurgent Russia—has used its Security Council veto to uphold sovereignty and block the possibility of sanctions or interventions. China’s defense of sovereignty has won support, not only from other autocrats but also from democracies like India and South Africa, where the public remembers years of meddling by the West and remains highly suspicious of any interventions. (Not surprisingly, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine essentially died a slow death at the UN, undone by countries concerned about sovereignty like China and India.)

Even if China’s defense of sovereignty hadn’t caught on around the world, Washington in 2010 is hardly in the mood to challenge Beijing or Moscow. Reeling from the global economic crisis, deeply in debt to China, and needing Beijing’s help to revive the world economy, the Obama administration has taken a soft approach toward the two autocratic powers. On a visit to the People’s Republic last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised that the administration would not allow human rights to “interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.” So, when the prospect of action has emerged in places where China has a strong interest, like Darfur (Beijing takes roughly half of Sudan’s oil), the U.S. has become far more deferential than in the 1990s.

Perhaps most important of all, as Ignatieff himself admitted, after the 9/11 attacks leaders in the U.S. and other Western countries totally shifted their focus from saving other countries’ civilians to securing their own homelands. And in service of the war on terror Western countries became willing to make deals with highly repressive regimes, which made it even harder to hold the moral high ground when addressing abusive regimes like Pyongyang or Khartoum, which actually had built a close counterterrorism intelligence relationship with the CIA and other agencies. While the Clinton administration had blasted Malaysia for its laws allowing indefinite detention of suspects, the Bush administration not only avoided such critiques but also took advantage of Malaysia’s draconian statutes to render terrorism suspects.

 hese dramatic shifts in global opinion have had a decisive impact in tiny Timor as well. Courting Indonesia once again, this time as an ally in the war on terror rather than the Cold War, the U.S. and other major powers have allowed Jakarta to avoid any accountability for the crimes committed in Timor in 1999 or in the 1970s. Many senior Indonesian military leaders linked to the 1999 killing live openly in Jakarta, and several have run as candidates for high political office. After the George W. Bush administration restored military relations with Jakarta, the Obama administration now is trying to restore U.S. assistance to Indonesia’s special forces, considered the most brutal component of a brutal military.

Meanwhile, the reconstruction of Timor has met some similar obstacles as in Kosovo or Iraq. After the initial euphoria of the peacekeeping operation, aid workers in Timor have had to deal with a country lacking infrastructure, an educated populace, any industry, or many real leaders. In the first years of the UN reconstruction effort, Timor was still viewed as a success story, partly because the glow of the initial intervention lasted. But the massive UN presence after 1999, which cost billions, served mostly to create a cadre of well-paid aid workers in Dili who enjoyed new cafés and Thai restaurants far beyond the reach of average Timorese. By 2006, the UN and the World Bank admitted that Timor actually had grown poorer in the seven years since the large aid presence was created in the country, and, according to a comprehensive report in the New York Times, the aid organizations had made minimal headway in improving basic social services like primary education. There are significant deposits of petroleum offshore, in the Timor Sea, and the government has licensed companies to explore offshore, which should eventually lead to production. However, for now the oil industry has created few jobs for Timorese and, so far, has not had a significant impact on local incomes.

Indeed, Timor Leste today is the poorest country in Asia, with infant mortality rates among the highest in the world, resembling Africa rather than high-tech neighbors like Singapore and Malaysia. Some Timorese sadly admit that, in terms of development, they had more stability during the Indonesian period. Warring gangs of militiamen still occasionally battle in Dili and other towns. Shortly after my visit to Timor in 2006, where I was doing book research, several militia gangs came out of the hills to battle in Dili, torching shops and shooting it out in the streets. A much smaller multinational force was sent to Timor this time, again led by Australia, but it has not prevented continued spasms of violence. And unlike in 1999, when hundreds of journalists crowded into Timor’s few small hotels, today even the Australian press, which long has taken an interest in Timor, mostly ignores the place.

 ill the world, and particularly the United States, ever return to an era of humanitarian intervention like the late 1990s? Given the disappointing results in Kosovo and East Timor, let alone Iraq and Afghanistan, the obvious answer would seem to be no. President Obama had to overcome strong objections within his own party in order to commit more troops to Afghanistan. There is now a whole generation of young liberals and realists who came of age after 9/11 and don’t believe the United States can, let alone should, use force to improve the lives of oppressed people in other countries. Meanwhile, the noisiest voice in the GOP today is the Tea Party movement, which tends to have an isolationist view toward foreign policy.

Humanitarian intervention probably never could have met the expectations of some of its advocates in the 1990s—that it would become a broad foreign policy strategy that could protect people around the world from mass violence and other crimes against humanity. Even at the height of the interventionist period, in the late 1990s, the international community did not storm into every crisis—the Burmese government brutalized its people by conscripting them into forced labor and using mass rape as a weapon against ethnic minority women, all while the outside world sat on its hands. Interventions happened only when moral outrage coincided with the particular concerns of key Western powers. The United States saw the mass killings and deportations in Kosovo as a threat to the stability of NATO member countries and to the alliance itself. Though Australia did not have significant security interests in Timor as the United States had in Kosovo, it did want to prevent the crisis from creating an influx of Timorese refugees. Had the United States and Australia not taken the lead and shouldered the lion’s share of the burdens in those conflicts, it’s highly unlikely that international military interventions would have occurred.

But with that in mind, it’s worth noting that the conditions which led to the international interventions of the late 1990s could easily recur in one form or another. After the massive Haiti earthquake earlier this year, the U.S. military quickly rushed assistance to the country, partly because of the scope of the tragedy but also because the Obama administration wanted to avoid having boatloads of Haitian refugees wash up on the beaches of South Florida. Though the U.S. actions were in response to a natural disaster, it is not hard to imagine man-made catastrophes in which the threat or reality of mass death—from political instability in, say, Cuba or oil-rich Nigeria—forces Western countries and the international community back into the game of humanitarian military intervention. In that eventuality, the lessons of East Timor will come in handy.

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Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.  
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