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Transitional justice in Timor-Leste: two decades on

  • Transitional justice is important in the context of Timor-Leste, a country that went through forced occupation for 24 years.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

30 August is historic for Timor-Leste as it marks the date of the United Nations-sponsored Referendum on Independence. This year is particularly special as it is exactly two decades since Timor-Leste voted for independence, ending 24 years of its brutal struggle against Indonesia’s occupation, in which the prominent scholar, Noam Chomsky described it as, “the miracle of the 20th century.”

Many were forced to hide in the mountains or herded into refugee camps across the border into Indonesian West Timor.The atmosphere leading in to the vote on 30 August 1999, was one of fear and intimidation, rather than hope. There had been threats, and predictions of violence leading up to voting day. The referendum also known as popular consultation witnessed 78.5% of the vote for independence over special autonomy within Indonesia. Right after the independence referendum, violence by militia groups and Indonesian forces includes massive destruction of property and displacement of population occurred that led to the Resolution 1264 by the United Nations Security Council that authorized the deployment of the International Force East Timor (INTERFET).

Two decades on, this is a good opportunity for us to review its collective progress and setbacks on the road toward building representative, accountable and responsive government. The question of how best to deal with a divisive past of mass violence is not a new one, but it is always challenging. I was fortunate to be in Timor-Leste during that whole week leading to the 30 August to commemorate the historical celebration that was attended by many world leaders.

In this column, I would like to focus on the transitional justice in Timor-Leste as a reflection of what I have observed for a week in Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste during the celebration.

The term transitional justice is not a popular term in Malaysia. But in countries such as Timor-Leste and many more who have experienced major atrocities, the term transitional justice is significant. Transitional justice is important in the context of Timor-Leste, a country that went through forced occupation for 24 years.

According to the definition by the United Nations, transitional justice covers all of the strategies a nation employs to address a history of mass human rights violations. The strategies might differ depending on particular contexts, but it is usually fit within the four basic pillars as the followings: uncovering and making public the truth about the violations, including the root causes; prosecution of those responsible for mass crimes; attempting to repair the lives of victims; and undertaking the social, legal and institutional reforms needed to make recurrence less likely.

Transitional justice in Timor-Leste has come a long way and it continues to be plagued with challenges. One major transitional justice achievements in Timor-Leste was the establishment of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR). The CAVR collected 7824 statements from across Timor-Leste. In its final report, entitled, Chega! (Chega is Portuguese for ‘no more, stop, enough’), it has 204 recommendations that include fulfillment of reparations for victims of human rights violations and institutional reform. The main recommendation was establishment of a special independent institution to implement the recommendations of the Chega! report. In December 2016, Timor-Leste’s established Centro Nacional Chega! (CNC) with a mandate that includes memorialization, education, external relations and dissemination, and survivor solidarity with the headquarter office located in a former prison, “Balide Prison”.

In the aftermath of Indonesian occupation for 24 years, knowing the truth about the past is more than just an important step toward justice, it is a recognized human right to which all victims and survivors of violence are entitled. Various efforts have been established in Timor-Leste since the independence referendum in 1999, to ensure transitional justice’s success. Apart from the CAVR, Chega! report and the CNC that have been mentioned, one of the earliest efforts is the establishment of the UN International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor on 15 October 1999.

Two decades on, despite of the various efforts, challenges on transitional justice remains. It is time to rethink some of the most fundamental principles and assumptions of transitional justice - can more memory, more truth and more justice leads to a just reconciliation? As what I have learned during a session on transitional justice in the CNC, the choice between prosecutions and forgiveness, is not simply about how to condemn those wrongs, it is also a question of how to ensure that victims’ rights are taken into account.

Two decades on, the crimes against humanity committed by Indonesia in Timor-Leste have not been fully addressed and will continue to remain a stain on Indonesia and the world’s conscience until they are dealt with rightly. While transitional justice often seeks to build a better future, very often, it neglects the current situation of the country, in which one major challenge being the weak institutions inherited from the pre-transition period. Transitional justice in Timor-Leste hence, needs to find its place within the practices of rule of law and development, rather than merely addressing past atrocities.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer.)


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