How Ireland can help a free East Timor


In the early 1990s Ireland distinguished itself internationally by supporting the cause of East Timor. Within the EU, the UN and other international forums, Ireland was one of the few states that consistently raised issues of human rights abuses and the continued illegal occupation of the territory by Indonesia.

Since those days, the situation in East Timor has changed dramatically. The Indonesian government has indicated that it is willing to "let go" of the former Portuguese colony it invaded and annexed following the collapse of the Portuguese empire in 1975. At UN-sponsored talks a schedule is being drawn up to allow transition towards a new status. The Indonesian government is facing a crucial election in June and has indicated it wants a settlement by then, with the goal of solving the conflict by next year.

The nature of the settlement will, it is hoped, be decided by the East Timorese themselves. While stopping short of a referendum, Indonesia is willing to co-operate with a consultation to establish popular aspirations. The population (fewer than one million) will be given a choice of independence or some autonomy within Indonesia.

While there are many questions about how that process will be undertaken and what will happen in the meantime, there is no question about the choice that the vast majority of East Timorese will make. We are facing the high probability of an independent republic of East Timor within the next 12-18 months.

However, supporters of East Timor haven't yet broken open the champagne bottles. Ironically, the independence of East Timor is unnervingly vulnerable while tantalisingly close. The path towards an independent East Timor needs to be smoothed by those who supported the struggle. Ireland needs to renew its efforts and translate the diplomatic solidarity of the past decade into real contributions to the peace process now under way.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Andrews, is planning a trip to East Timor at the end of April. There he will be welcomed by East Timorese including the man most likely to become the political head of the new state: Xanana Gusmao.

As a small power with limited resources and no great foothold in the region, can Ireland do more than continue its diplomatic declarations?

There are at least five positive steps that Ireland could take now to support East Timor. First, Ireland could facilitate negotiations on a ceasefire. While there has been a cessation of violence by the guerrillas, no ceasefire has actually been brokered between the Indonesian army and the resistance forces. As we know from our experience in Northern Ireland, a formal agreement on ending violence is a necessary step towards peace.

Secondly, Ireland could take a lead in assisting in the demilitarisation of the pro-Indonesian paramilitary forces whose presence in East Timor poses the most serious threat to stability. While the army has been preparing to withdraw, there is evidence that elements in the military have armed these paramilitaries in the guise of "civil guards". Military leaders and some Indonesian supporters in East Timor are busy talking up a civil war scenario. These doomsday predictions exaggerate the reality and increase the instability that is inevitable in the transition process.

Thirdly, Ireland could assemble a package of small-scale but strategic development projects for the transition period, focusing on the bolstering of civil society through training in conflict resolution, leadership and human rights.

Fourth, Ireland could provide training for the future East Timorese judiciary (as it has done in Rwanda) and future East Timorese police force (as it has done as part of a UN programme in many troubled spots). Ireland has already committed itself to providing peacekeepers.

Fifth, Ireland needs to continue its diplomatic initiatives to ensure that the international support East Timor received does not come to an end once the conflict is over. In 1996 the EU agreed an aid package for East Timor which, because of difficulties with the Indonesian government, was never implemented. Ireland could spearhead a campaign for a reallocation of that grant towards funding transition projects. In this proposal it will find support from the Portuguese, for whom a dignified and successful retreat from its old responsibilities in East Timor is of great importance.

Ireland has a reputation with the East Timorese based on trust. We have no strategic or selfish reasons for intervening in the process and are unlikely to be rebuked by the Indonesians. We have proven ourselves to the Portuguese as supporters of the cause of independence and the rule of international law.

We also have, through the experience of the Northern Ireland peace process, a goldmine of knowledge and expertise about the complexities of conflict resolution in a highly fraught environment.

Finally, our increasingly sensitised attitude to overseas development has produced a model of aid that would be highly suitable to East Timor's needs.

Eilis Ward is a foreign policy analyst and member of the International Platform of Jurists for East Timor.