Timor-Leste: East Timor Truth Commission


Gerry van Klinken

Too quickly the world seems to have forgotten the outrages committed in East Timor in 1999. The result of giving the Indonesian legal system ‘a chance’ has so far been predictably farcical. Now the East Timorese have started on their own road to satisfying a crying need for justice, and for reconciliation.

When the formal justice system does not work, truth commissions offer what is often called transitional justice. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor - formally established on 21 January 2002 - aims to help communities receive back those who fled to West Timor after the 1999 referendum; to learn the truth about human rights violations over the 25 years from 25 April 1974 (Portugal's Carnation Revolution) to 25 October 1999 (the beginning of UNTAET); and, to reconcile political rivals.

The truth-seeking mandate is particularly strong. The commission is to establish the truth regarding human rights violations in the context of the political conflict in East Timor; identify the factors that may have led to them; and identify practices and policies, whether of state or non-state actors, which need to be addressed to prevent future recurrences. It may also recommend prosecutions. The commission’s other objectives are to help restore the human dignity of victims, promote reconciliation and human rights generally, and support the reintegration into the community of individuals who have committed minor criminal offences.

In January 2003 the commission will move into the former Comarca military detention centre in Dili. Former inmates of this notorious torture centre will turn it into a museum to honour victims of human rights abuse once the commission has finished.

Nearly a thousand individual East Timorese, even in remote rural areas, have already given statements to commission staff about human rights violations they experienced. This is a remarkably democratic process. Their stories concern the early years of the war – 1975 to 1983 - as much as they do 1999. Most of these stories are being heard for the first time. The war in East Timor was one of the most isolated in the world.

On 11-12 November 2002 a dozen of these victims gave their testimonies at a public hearing in Dili. In 2003 public hearings will be held frequently all over the country. The final report is due to be presented to President Xanana Gusmao in late 2004.

WATCHPOINT: While the Truth Commission will deal primarily with 'past cases of lesser crimes such as looting, burning and minor assault', it will also help to record accounts of more serious crimes and be able to make recommendations (including recommendations for prosecutions) to the Attorney General. It remains to be seen, though, if the formal judicial system will have the capacity and 'teeth' to bring the perpetrators of more serious crimes to justice?


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