East Timor: fresh focus on human rights

Will conservative Western governments do more for human rights in faraway East Timor than their more liberal predecessors? The possibility seems to exist , at least in the case of Portugal, which used to be East Timor's colonial ruler , and the United States, which stood by when its friend, Indonesia, took over East Timor during independence struggles in the 1970s. It is important to keep up the momentum of concern for the devastated land that seems reflected in recent events.

Portugal's political swing to the right last year was followed by hope within the Timorese independence movement because Lisbon appeared readier than before to assume moral responsibilities in regard to its former territory. The new government did seek to get talks going on East Timor's future though without much response so far.

America's swing to the right may not have been followed by similar hopes, as the Reagan team quickly played down human rights. Yet in a little-publicized move the new administration has allocated $4.15 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross, including $1.5 million for the protection and assistance of political detainees around the world. The package contains a special provision for such activities as tracing missing persons in East Timor. This would address the concern expressed by Amnesty International over Timorese who were captured or who surrendered under amnesty guarantees and then disappeared.

The worst of East Timor's famine and relief problems are reportedly over, though much poverty remains. Voluntary agencies are believed able to meet the most urgent ongoing needs of this sort.

On the overall question of East Timor's independence and the role of Indonesia in defiance of the United Nations, there ought to be some kind of negotiated settlement down the road.

Meanwhile, the question of human rights remains. What needs to be ensured is a maintenance and strengthening of cooperation among Indonesia, Portugal, Australia, and international agencies in finding missing persons, reuniting families, providing fair and decent treatment of prisoners, and protecting rights to leave the island.

It is said that the logjam thrown up by Indonesian resistance has been broken. But outside voices across the political spectrum are wise to continue focusing attention on these matters to prevent backward steps. Recently in the United States the voices have included conservative Republican Senator Hayakawa and liberal Democratic Senators Tsongas and Kennedy. It is good to see the Reagan administration join in wi th some money for the effort.

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