Issue 16 - Article 10

East Timor: Humanitarianism Displaced?

March 15, 2004
Christopher McDowell, Coordinator, Resettlement Programme, CAPSTRANS, University of Wollongong, Australia
10 min read

The people of East Timor take a long view on history. Outsiders observing recent events in the eastern part of the island despair at the shattering destruction wrought in just two weeks in September 1999 by retreating militia and Indonesian soldiers. But for the East Timorese, the unleashing of bitter revenge and recrimination following the population’s decision, in a UN-backed referendum, to sever ties with Jakarta, marked the end of 400 years of colonial history and the beginning of a new era. It was an appropriate end to four centuries of Portuguese rule, and 23 years of opposition to the Indonesian military occupation marked by economic exploitation, forced relocation and famine.

Sadly, however, the image of a new dawn is too simplistic. The people of East Timor will be confronted with the contortions of its history for decades to come and the island remains divided both geographically and politically. The pro-Indonesian militias, responsible for much of the violence in East Timor, remain in West Timor in control of camps detaining some 140,000 people. With large economic interests in East Timor and powerful backers, the officially disbanded militias remain a potent, destabilising force on the island.

A new colonialism?

Six months after the referendum for self-determination the possibility of nationhood for the people of East Timor remains remote. Its political elite talk about the ‘new colonialism’ of the UN, its humanitarian agencies, the INGOs, and the governments of Australia, Portugal, America and Japan competing to rebuild the country and secure influence in a dangerously unstable region. The UN Transitional Administration will remain in charge of East Timor for two or three more years. The Campaign for National Resistance in East Timor (CNRT) may yet provide the foundation for a first government, but demilitarisation and democratisation will not be easy.

The international response to East Timor remains in the emergency phase. UN Security Council Resolution 1264 of 15 September 1999 tasked the mainly Australian International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) with aiding the return of the UN to Dili, restoring peace and security, and facilitating humanitarian assistance. The UN presence is now firmly established. However, the remaining tasks continue to preoccupy the multinational force which replaced INTERFET in late February/early March.

Relations between the CNRT leadership and INTERFET/UNTAET (the UN Transnational Authority for East Timor) have been smooth compared to the Timorese leaderships’ relations with the 80 or so NGOs and other humanitarian agencies active in East Timor. Widespread friction surfaces time and again over the obvious disparities in conditions enjoyed by international humanitarian staff when contrasted with the conditions endured by the majority of East Timorese. Specifically, high salaries, accommodation in hotels, large 4-wheel drives, recruiting of Indonesian labour, and the perceived competition for the poor as clients provide issues of conflict. More generally, there is a deep frustration with the inability to reach the farthest reaches of the small country despite the huge amounts of food, medical and other supplies stockpiled in Dili, the capital, and in Darwin, Australia.

Humanitarian Actions Sidelined

The conditions which resulted in a situation in which the CNRT leadership, and popular opinion, were prepared to trust the multinational military force, may be explained by developments in the first weeks of the humanitarian operation. These developments served to privilege the status of the military role and the political response to the crisis, while marginalising the humanitarian.

The first six weeks of the East Timor operation was driven unequivocally by the military and the politicians. When General Cosgrove, the Australian Commander of INTERFET, was asked about the arrangements for cooperation between the military and the humanitarian agencies in his first meeting with the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator, Ross Mountain (20 September 1999, he replied that ‘it was necessary for the humanitarian side to realise that military resources could only be diverted to humanitarian tasks as and when the core tasks [the restoration of security and the reinstatement of the UN] allowed.’

Naturally this statement of policy concerned Mountain. First, the UN diplomats who drafted Resolution 1264 did not intend that the three tasks were in anyway sequential: this was Cosgrove’s interpretation. Second, in their meeting Mountain set out his vision of an integrated and unified approach to military/humanitarian operations in which:

  1. military assets would be used to support the humanitarian operation, and not be diverted for that purpose;
  2. all activities would be coordinated, particularly in relation to air movements to ensure that humanitarian delivery would not be impeded unnecessarily;
  3. the military and the humanitarian agencies would share information for the purposes of planning; and
  4. would actively work together on reconnaissance.

Cosgrove’s vision was somewhat different. From this point on, it was clear that UN OCHA humanitarian agencies on one side, and INTERFET on the other would have to reach a compromise, though over time their positions have edged closer.

A security-driven agenda

Cosgrove’s security-driven rather than humanitarian-driven interpretation of INTERFET’s role in East Timor can be explained. The situation in the territory, three weeks after the referendum, was complex, sensitive and dangerous. On deployment, INTERFET could not assume authority in Dili because the Jakarta government, backed by a large contingent of troops (the TNI, the national army of Indonesia) and police, remained in legal control as East Timor was still a part of Indonesia. An arguably understaffed INTERFET was required to consult with the TNI command before undertaking any action. The withdrawal of the TNI from the territory required careful negotiations and hampered the delivery of aid. The security situation remained dangerous. Thousands of pro-Jakarta militia, most likely recruited and trained in West Timor, were active in Dili and beyond, and there was the unknown danger of unexploded ordnance. The assembled force (from a number of nations) needed time to establish joint operating procedures and put in place command and control structures. Moreover, the Australian government, concerned about its rapidly deteriorating relations with Jakarta, and with considerable political capital invested in INTERFET, was determined on a gradualist approach to working with, rather than against, the Indonesian government.

While understandable in geo-political and security terms, the approach adopted by the Australian government and INTERFET had negative humanitarian consequences. 

The forced removal of people from East Timor to West Timor and elsewhere in Indonesia continued after INTERFET’s deployment. In sight of INTERFET troops, the TNI were clearly orchestrating deportations and looting. Unable to move beyond Dili, the destruction of towns and villages, particularly in the east of the territory, continued without action being taken by INTERFET. NGOs and other aid workers believed that even after the withdrawal of the TNI, INTERFET was slow to secure the roads, port and airports to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. Agencies were enraged when seats on the first military flights into Dili were reserved for the media, and aid workers were left on the tarmac. Once in the country, agency staff were critical of the military’s reluctance to escort humanitarian workers to ‘uncleared’ areas where need was reportedly greatest.

Within the humanitarian community it was widely argued that the ‘conservative’, security-driven approach adopted by INTERFET had unnecessarily prolonged the suffering of the people of East Timor by delaying the delivery of assistance and leaving the displaced to fend for themselves in the mountains under deteriorating conditions. It was further argued that for political reasons the protection and return of refugees was given low priority. The investigation of suspected atrocity sites and interviews with witnesses to potential crimes were neglected; the first forensic teams only arrived 10 weeks after the crimes were thought to have been committed.

Throughout September and October in Darwin, OCHA assumed its coordination role and promoted the exchange of information between humanitarian agencies and initiated regular meetings to plan future operations, assess needs and arrange logistics. At first INTERFET remained apart from this coordination effort, but as pressure grew for a more integrated response, INTERFET started attending meetings – first to brief, and second to listen. Active exchanges between the military and humanitarian agencies only came later.

Inappropriate action

The need to do something in the face of the unfolding human tragedy and in the absence of ground access led to demands for the airdropping of food parcels to the hundreds of thousands of people thought to be hiding in the hills and forests. Conditions for airdrops were sub-optimal, visibility was poor, the ground was wooded, steep and rocky, intelligence about the whereabouts of refugees was incomplete, and it was not known if militia were present in targeted areas. The ICRC, with an aircraft in Darwin, rejected airdrops, but the Australian military, AusAID (the Australian government’s overseas aid department) and WFP agreed to fund and organise a series of drops over a 12-day period beginning 16 September. A specially equipped aircraft was brought in from South Africa and permitted the use of so called ‘snow drop’ technology. (Snow dropping is a new technology for airdropping relief supplies designed to reduce the likelihood of losses on contact with the ground and to lead to more accurate delivery.)

News cameras, on board to film the drops, recorded a series of operations abandoned because of failed equipment. Three days into the airdrops it became clear that the strategy was failing. WFP admitted that packages of rice hastily double wrapped in plastic had exploded on impact – possibly sabotaged by an Indonesian observer. At a press conference it was asked why rice was thought appropriate when refugees were daily on the move, had no time to cook and would not wish to draw attention to themselves by lighting fires. Elsewhere, most notably in Remexio, drops had completely missed their targets. Other reports said that the US supplied 350,000 special daily ration packs containing 200 grammes of high protein biscuits which had swelled in the stomachs of refugees forcing them out of hiding to seek water and medical attention. The final blow was front page news coverage of a six-year old boy struck by a food parcel. His injuries were so bad that it necessitated the amputation of a leg below the knee. Airdrops were ill judged and poorly timed, but had broad public appeal as any action appeared better than none.

The current situation

NGOs and humanitarian agencies in East Timor are now struggling to make up ground lost in the opening weeks of the East Timor operation, and to gain the trust and confidence of the people and the political leadership. Instructing aid workers in basic Tetum, gradually re-establishing local institutions and associations, and including the CNRT and the churches in operational planning and implementation is beginning to have an effect.

The response to the East Timor crisis, in line with the move to regional responsibility, was to a large extent forged in the context of Australian national interests. Concerns about regional security and stability were paramount and the humanitarian response was subject to these concerns. In such circumstances it is hard to see how a truly integrative political/military/humanitarian response to a crisis on this scale can be achieved. Inevitably it is the humanitarians who will be wrong-footed.



































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