Beyond ‘Pragmatism’ versus ‘Principle’. Ongoing Justice Debates in East Timor

Lia Kent


brought the repressive twenty-four-year Indonesian occupation of East Timor to an end, multiple transitional justice mechanisms have been established to address the violence of the past. These have included two prosecutorial mechanisms: a serious crimes investigations and prosecutions process (Serious Crimes Process) based in East Timor and a Jakarta-based Ad Hoc human rights court set up by the Indonesian government; and two truth and reconciliation commissions: a Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) established by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), and a bilateral East Timorese and Indonesian government-initiated Truth and Friendship Commission (CTF). Despite these efforts to ‘deal with the past’, no member of the Indonesian military has yet been tried for 1999-related violence, and the East Timorese leadership has progressively promoted a narrative of forgiveness, forgetting and ‘moving on’ from the past.

After providing a brief background to the conflict during the Indonesian occupation, this chapter traces the competing imperatives that have shaped the transitional justice agenda since the 1999 referendum and have underpinned the East Timorese leadership’s increasingly antiprosecutorial stance. In particular, I acknowledge that, in a context in which powerful members of the UN Security Council have increasingly prioritised the maintenance of relations with Indonesia over the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to prosecute senior members of its military, it is not surprising that the East Timorese leadership has implored its population to forgive and forget. In addition, I suggest that the leadership’s forward-looking reconciliatory narrative has served internal nation-building purposes, and reflects preoccupations with building national unity and establishing political legitimacy during a fragile and formative nation-building era. Anxieties about these issues can be seen in the attempts by some East Timorese leaders to orient the justice debate towards social justice rather than retributive justice and the ongoing parliamentary discussions about amnesties and pardons for convicted East Timorese perpetrators of serious crimes.

Despite the UN’s broken promises to hold those ‘most responsible’ to account for the violence of 1999, and the East Timorese leadership’s entreaty to the population to move on, this chapter argues that it is too simplistic to characterise the transitional justice process as representing a triumph of ‘pragmatism’ over ‘principle’. Specifically, it is apparent that new and unforseen possibilities are emerging from the CAVR and CTF reports and the activities of NGOs and local victims’ groups, which may help to shift the terrain on which justice struggles are enacted. These developments indicate that transitional justice in East Timor is perhaps best described as an open-ended, political conversation without a predetermined end point, rather than a project confined to a specific ‘transitional’ period.

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