Who will investigate atrocities?

The remains of 10 East Timorese were discovered in the back of a pickup

As evidence mounts of grievous human-rights abuses in East Timor, it is also growing clear that the Australian-led peacekeeping forces and the UN mission here have neither the means nor the authority to track down those responsible.

Yesterday, Reuters correspondents discovered 10 charred bodies in the back of a small white pickup truck that had been set afire in a field on the coastal road west of Dili. Severed limbs and heads indicated that the victims had met a violent end.

This grim scene is the most persuasive evidence of mass killing yet found in East Timor since the international community stepped in to restore order. But in contrast to Kosovo, where human-rights investigators began work as NATO forces took control on the ground, the UN in East Timor has no such capability.

UN police officers and Australian military police yesterday took photographs and made notes at the scene, but left after a half hour. Australian Capt. Justin Roocke, a UN civilian police officer, shook his head. "When you actually look at this sort of situation and our ability to investigate these things - it'll be when somebody comes forward."

Earlier this week, the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva established a commission to investigate abuses in East Timor in 1999, over the objections of Indonesia and other Asian countries. The commission will be able to recommend to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that an international tribunal be established to hold people accountable for the violence that has surrounded East Timor's Aug. 30 vote for independence from Indonesia.

But while diplomats talk, corpses are turning up here with increasing regularity. Across the street from Dili's trashed and abandoned Toyota dealership, a body lies in a drainage ditch.

People have dropped bougainvillaea blossoms and some money onto the corpse, offerings that mask most of it from view. Those in the neighborhood say a machete wound was visible earlier. Armed, anti-independence militia groups used machetes in their vengeful rampage after the results of the vote were announced Sept. 4.

"As we come across more and more of these examples, the best we can hope for is that there will be a reasonable record of what is physically present," says a Western legal expert who spoke on condition of anonymity. " 'Best' because there's no domestic jurisdiction to even contemplate any additional measures now."

The problem is that Indonesia remains the legal authority in the territory. That creates a quandary, the expert says, where Indonesia claims authority but doesn't exercise power. And the other side - the Australian-led forces and the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) - "has the power but not the full legal authority, and doesn't want to exercise power at the barrel of a gun."

Legal and judicial vacuum

So far the international forces here have found about 30 bodies - including yesterday's discovery - that bear evidence of violence, according to UNAMET spokesman David Wimhurst. Like the corpse in front of the Toyota dealership, many of the human remains are being virtually ignored in what Mr. Wimhurst calls a "juridical and legal vacuum."

"What we urgently need to see," he adds, "are experts ... who can come in and conduct a systematic investigation."

At the same time the Australian-led forces also are apprehending suspected militia members - and struggling to find a way to detain them legally if they are suspected of crimes or human-rights abuses.

At a briefing for reporters yesterday, the chief Australian legal officer, Lt. Col. Drew Braban, explained that the Australians were holding suspects for 72 hours and then handing them over to the Indonesian police, who are vacating the territory as part of Indonesia's overall withdrawal.

A few moments later, UNAMET spokesman Wimhurst took the podium and said that just seven Indonesian police officers remained in the territory. Reports suggest that the police have released detainees they have received from the Australians.

An Australian military press officer later declined a reporter's request to question Colonel Braban about the discrepancy, saying he was too busy.

This issue is especially pressing at the moment, because on Monday night Australian forces in helicopters swept into the East Timor town of Com at dusk, apprehending approximately 15 suspected militia members. The Australians also seized military-style weapons - including well-worn Kalashnikov assault rifles. The sweep was in response to the deadly ambush of two nuns and seven other members of an aid mission on Saturday.

It seems unlikely that Indonesian authorities would investigate those seized in the Com raid. The major aims of the Australian-led intervention forces are to restore peace and security to East Timor, protect UNAMET, and help humanitarian agencies assisting the East Timorese to rebuild.

But the force also appears committed to conducting its work without firing a shot. And, in the words of an American who acted as an observer during the Aug. 30 referendum, "there was a policy from the very beginning of minimal confrontation with the Indonesian government, and that will continue."

Indonesia is already upset over the international criticism it has received, being forced to accept international peacekeepers on what remains its own soil, and the steps to create an international human-rights tribunal.

"Indonesia rejects the UN fact-finding inquiry on human rights violations in East Timor...," Justice Minister Muladi told reporters yesterday. "However, the government welcomes foreign human-rights experts to join the [Indonesian] National Human Rights Commission on East Timor," Muladi said.

A serious probe?

Any serious investigation of human-rights abuses in East Timor would likely implicate members of the Indonesian military, which created the militias. These groups have killed an unknown number of people, displaced hundreds of thousands, and destroyed the territory's infrastructure. Soldiers often worked with the militias.

And Indonesia is particularly irked at Australia, which began preparing for an intervention long before the UN Security Council issued a mandate. Consequently, the Australian forces in East Timor have appeared to tread softly when it comes to pursuing human-rights investigations and detaining militia members.

"Right now, the civil primacy remains with Indonesia," notes Major Mark Tanzer, a spokesman for the Australian-led forces. He says officials are trying to find ways to expand their authority to detain and investigate those who may be responsible for human-rights violations. "It's being looked at," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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