E. Timor was victim of West's politics, too

September 28, 1999|By Charles M. Madigan

CHANGE COMES HARD and in very small increments in the world of foreign policy, where a decades-old concern about violations of human rights is colliding with the self-interests and sovereignty of nations, even of nations that seem to have made strong commitments to the human rights agenda.

Why did it take the United States so long to help craft a solution to the violence in East Timor when it was seemingly so aggressive in condemning human rights abuses in the former Yugoslavia? Why was Britain so passionate in its condemnation of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and so late to the game in condemning the violence in East Timor?

One answer is that it is difficult to navigate in a world in which human rights abuses no longer are the sole province of the former Soviet Union.

Post Cold War world

The Cold War gave the West the perfect, one-stop shopping experience for human rights criticism. Because of its long-recognized brutalities against dissidents and ethnic minorities alike, the Kremlin was a perfect punching bag.

Now that target is gone, replaced by hundreds of targets, a reality complicated by relationships that stretch over many years and involve a blizzard of economic and political issues. It's hard to make conclusive statements in such a challenging world.

Sidney Jones has been monitoring developments in Indonesia for years as executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. She has concluded there are three reasons why the world, perhaps in the form of the United Nations with a strong push from the United States, did not react long ago:

People were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the post-Suharto government.

There was hope, in this scenario, that President Suharto's successor, B.J. Habibie, would be a mellowing influence on the military and perhaps display more tolerance for independence movements all over Indonesia. What apparently happened is that Mr. Habibie learned he was not really in control of much of anything.

Everyone was worried about jeopardizing ties with Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation and a huge economic influence in Asia.

Asia was just pulling out of its economic troubles. No one wanted to consider discussing sanctions against such a key player. As part of this explanation, the Pentagon realized that its connection to Indonesia was small, but it was determined to maintain and expand that relationship at any cost.

Beyond those reasons, Ms. Jones says, almost everyone in the State Department was paying attention to the Balkans. No one wanted to shift focus.

Catching criminals

Now that the U.N. Security Council has sent in a multinational force of peacekeepers to East Timor, there are calls for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal, similar to the ones struggling with atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda.

But that could well be premature. "I support the idea of bringing perpetrators to justice," Ms. Jones said. "But the priority now is saving lives. I think the notion of a tribunal is going to have to wait until we can get these militias under control."

There is also the question of looking for real culpability in the case of East Timor. Does responsibility stop with the men who so effectively chopped people up with machetes?

Or does it stretch beyond the actual killers and take in heads of government all over the world who had their own abundant reasons for doing nothing?

This is an excerpt of a longer article by Charles M. Madigan of the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 9/28/99

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