East Timor: On Principals & Pretexts

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Alexander George

THERE IS MUCH outraged talk nowadays about the moral unacceptability of aggression in the international arena. To put such appeals to principle to the test, it is worth recalling that over fifteen years ago (December 7, 1975), Indonesian troops invaded the Portuguese colony of East Timor. Their conquest was extremely brutal, far more devastating than anything Saddam Hussein wrought on Kuwait Often quoted estimates for deaths, through massacres, bombardment and starvation, range from 100,000 to 200,000 East Timorese. This represents one-sixth to one-third of the pre-invasion population of 600,000, making the invasion and its consequences one of the most substantial holocausts of the twentieth century. With the Timorese terrorized, abuses have naturally abated.

But they continue: the Indonesian occupation is regularly singled out and condemned by human and legal rights groups for its brutality. In a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations, the head of the East Timor Catholic Church, Bishop Belo, recently summarized the status quo: “We continue to die as a people and as a nation.”

It is instructive to examine the response of those nations which appear now most anguished by incidents of aggression. On December 12, 1975, five days after the Indonesian invasion, the Gen-end Assembly of the United Nations voted to condemn the action and called on Indonesian troops to withdraw. The resolution was adopted seventy-two votes to ten, with forty-three abstentions, including the United States, Britain and most of Western Europe.

The seven following U.N. resolutions on East Timor followed the same pattern: from 1976 (when Indonesia annexed East Timor, an act not recognized by the UN, which still considers East Timor a non-self-governing territory of Portugal), Washington has voted with Indonesia against resolutions calling for an act of self-determination in East Timor. Since 1976, Britain has abstained. (On an official visit a few years ago, Thatcher toasted her Indonesian hosts thus: “Our cultures are diverse but when it comes to defending independence and freedom we are at one with you.”) The General Assembly stopped voting on East Timor in 1983.

Although U.S. law prohibits sales for other than defensive purposes, the United States supplied Indonesia with most of its weaponry. The same is true of most Western countries which were falling over one another (and still are) to supply Indonesia with arms that continue to be used to subjugate the Timorese people.

The support for Indonesia extends to financial aid as well. Since 1967, Western donor countries have provided economic support to Indonesia through the Inter-Governmental Group on Indonesia. IGGI assistance this year will reach $4.5 billion, none of it conditioned in any way upon improvement of Indonesia’s human rights record.

Since the work of the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant, it is common to distinguish between acting in accord with ethical principles and acting from them. If someone fails to follow principles when it is inconvenient for him, then one can be sure that when he does, he is merely acting in accord with them. Moral lip-synching, as it were. One acts from a principle when what motivates one is the desire to abide by the principle, not some other goal coincidentally facilitated on this occasion by these actions. The same applies to states.

East Timor, its people now in their sixteenth year of suffering, shows up the hollow moral posturing we have recently been treated to by our political leaders. At least, let us not by deceived by their motivations.

May-June 1991, ATC 32