Victoria Brittain’s contribution to the fringe meeting at the SLP Congress, November 6th 1999. In the previous issue of the paper, the Congress report was included but due to shortage of space we were unable to include this article. It is reproduced below as we promised last time.
I’ve chosen these two countries – both today in a desperate broken state, with their populations hungry, completely dislocated, cut off from family members, homes, farms, communities, from education and health care – because they illustrate in their different ways the big themes of international relations today in a world of one super-power – the US – and where newly fashionable concepts, such as Human Rights or “humanitarian war”, are selectively and confusingly applied to obscure some harsh realities. The NATO war against Serbia, carried out at an obscene cost estimated at $30 billion, was a landmark, an open, flagrant defiance of international norms which for half a century have, at least in principle, placed the UN in a central role in any international police operation: Cyprus, Lebanon, etc.
The big themes of international relations today are remarkably little different from those which underlay the Cold War period: the ruthlessness with which Third World nationalist aspirations are completely disregarded, and in fact thwarted, the dominance of the US in all international decision-making – political and economic – and, arising in part out of that dominance, the weakness of the UN which is now a mere shadow of the organisation dreamed of by the idealists who created it in the aftermath of the two world wars earlier this century.
The two small countries I want to talk about have some obvious things in common besides being victims of appalling crimes perpetrated by the US and its allies and proxies – in once case Indonesia’s military elite, and in the other Jonas Savimbi’s Unita movement allied to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Both are former Portuguese colonies, remote from the knowledge and preoccupations of most of Western public opinion; both have offshore oil reserves which make them of great interest to a section of Western capitalism. And both, at the time of the 1974 officers’ coup in Portugal which brought the end of fascism and opened the last chapter of Portuguese colonialism, had independence movements – the MPLA in Angola, Fretilin in East Timor – led by progressive nationalists.
In the context of the Cold War this made them automatically categorised as enemies by the US administrations of the mid-1970s which set out to destroy them by military means, confident that barely a voice would be raised against what was being done in these obscure places, one in West Africa and the other in Asia, on the line between the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975 relying on US diplomatic support and even arms. Ten years before, US officials had been enthusiastic backers of the coup which brought General Suharto to power replacing Sukarno. Sukarno was one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement formed under the influence of the radical generation which had forced governments like Britain’s and France’s into decolonisation. Like Nkrumah of Ghana, the Algerians Ben Bella and Boumedienne, and their intellectual ally Fidel Castro, Sukarno was judged a threat to Western interests. It was their independence of thought which the West feared on several fronts, although it would be a decade for the serious challenge of the New International Economic Order to be launched.
In Indonesia’s 1965 coup, which brought Suharto to power, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly peasants, were killed by the army which had been trained and encouraged in its politicisation by the US. The communist party was destroyed. Indonesia and its military chiefs became the key US allies in South East Asia during the Vietnam War and thereafter. An entire generation of Indonesia’s elite, mostly military, were trained by the US. Meanwhile in East Timor the military indulged in gruesome massacres of civilians, and massive forced removals, in an attempt to end Fretilin’s campaign for independence. Church sources estimated that 200,000 people were killed in the late seventies. The Carter administration, backed by Britain and France, found Indonesia a reliable market for a steady flow of arms. US weapons sales to Indonesia since 1975 have amounted to $1 billion. The human rights violations and the massive corruption which were the twin hallmarks of Suharto’s years in Indonesia were ignored.
In parallel in Angola, in the years after 1975 brought the MPLA to power, the US role was to aid the South Africans in building Savimbi into a power. By systematic campaigns of kidnapping, forced conscription and terrorising of peasants, UNITA destabilised the country and paralysed any development of education, health and agriculture. The savagery with which this destruction, this utter ruin of a country, was done defies the imagination.
If amnesia was not the recognised norm for American policy makers and their public opinion, there would be plenty of Americans required to attend Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, or even War Crimes Tribunals, to take responsibility for what they did over 20 years in Angola and Indonesia.
That is the background against which the 1999 tragedy in East Timor has to be seen. Suharto’s power base was shaken last year by rising discontent, including within the army, and the East Timorese question came timidly onto the world agenda and a referendum on independence, to be held under UN auspices, was agreed. This was a huge step forward out of the years of repression and international obscurity for East Timor, but the very organisation of the UN intervention contained from the start the seeds of the catastrophe which took place in September and October 1999.
And for any student of the UN’s shameful betrayal of the Angolan people after the UN-supervised election of 1992, the referendum and its aftermath would not have been a surprise. It was a re-run of history. In Angola Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA failed to win the election – despite constant assurances to him by his US allies that they would – and immediately resorted to an all-out war under the nose of the international community. In East Timor, when Indonesia’s proposal for semi-autonomy rather than independence was overwhelmingly rejected, the army and its trained militias similarly set out quite simply and ruthlessly to destroy a nation.
In both cases the utter bad faith of one party to the agreement was abundantly clear, and well known. In both cases the top UN officials, however lacking in regional background they may have been, could not have avoided knowing that the operation as conceived was undoable. But for all the obvious reasons of not daring to lose face, of not being easily able to shift policy in a vast unwieldy bureaucracy, or careless ignorance or cynicism, or more sinister ones of powerful state interest in seeing another UN failure, the two programmes were driven on forward to disaster for the country concerned and humiliation for the UN.
Ten days after the August 30 referendum, the UN mission UNAMET gave its appraisal. The evidence for direct links between the militia and the military is beyond dispute and has been overwhelmingly documented by UNAMET over the past four months. But the scale and thoroughness of the destruction of East Timor in the past week has demonstrated a new level of open participation in the implementation of what was previously a more veiled operation. The worst may yet be to come….it cannot be ruled out that these are the first stages of a genocidal campaign to stamp out the East Timorese problem by force.
So the UN had foreseen the pogrom for four months. This was certainly an improvement on their complete lack of far-sightedness in Angola. But why then was nothing done to avert the tragedy? The answer is simple. In the weeks before the ballot the Clinton administration refused to discuss with Australia and others close to the scene and, aware of the looming disaster, the formation of an international force. That attitude was quietly accepted by the European powers, including Britain, who only months before had been so proud of entering a “humanitarian war” in Kosovo. (And given that the UN had never recognised Indonesia’s sovereignty over East Timor, there was none of the ambiguity, not to say illegality, involved in the NATO attack on Serbia.)
Even when the violence in Dili and other towns broke out, thousands of people were murdered and half the population had fled their homes or had been expelled from them, the White House dithered. As in Angola, the UN did not have the courage to make an international scandal about it. In fact UNAMET actually went so far as to accept the humiliation of having to pull out of its Dili headquarters and retreat to Australia for security reasons – temporarily as it turned out. And the thousands of refugees who had taken sanctuary with the UN came within a whisker of being abandoned to the militia killers by the UN.
The fundamental reason behind all this was that Indonesia, an oil-rich nation with 200 million inhabitants and millions of US and Japanese investment, was, and always would be, infinitely more important to Western interests than a tiny underdeveloped country of 800,000 inhabitants.
Washington’s relation to the UN in general, but particularly in the Timor case was spelled out by a US ambassador to the UN in the late 1970s, 3 years after the invasion: Daviel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, wrote in his memoirs:
“The US wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the UN prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success”.
Cynical words indeed, but so successful was he that the world stood idly by while it took 20 years for the Indonesian people to gain the strength to shake the Suharto dictatorship and as a result allow East Timor at least onto the international agenda, even if the UN protection of the country got at its birth was as shaky and flawed as I have described.
It is tempting to see stories like those of East Timor and Angola as reasons for utter cynicism about the UN, and many on the left write the organisation off. Iraq in the last few years has been par excellence the example of the use of the UN for imperialist ends. UN sanctions against Iraq are a crime against the people of Iraq: Children under 5 are dying at more than twice the rate of 10 years ago. UNICEF has estimated that if Iraq’s decline in child mortality of the 1980s had continued there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under 5 between 1991-98. These are the terrible figures: and indictment of the arrogance of the Security Council members who use the organisation to play god.
But in the world of globalisation which faces us now we cannot afford to let the future of the one world body we have be determined by the US government, invariably backed by the British. There is a battle to be fought inside the UN, and around it in public opinion, and it is a battle which we cannot leave to others. The price of our lack of vigilance, lack of muscle, lack of voice, is what has been done to the people of Angola, East Timor, Iraq, and sadly many other places. These people need us to work on their behalf so that they cannot be conveniently marginalised and forgotten by the powerful who determine their fate.