East Timor: Reparations and Responsibility
Stephen R. Shalom
The New York Times reported on October 25 the claim that the United States had "poured billions" into East Timor. The next day the Times ran a "correction," saying that in fact "Washington's foreign aid" to East Timor "has not amounted to billions."
As far as we know, the New York Times doesn't run clarifications on its corrections. But it might start with this one.
U.S. aid to East Timor before September 1999 was not just less than "billions," it was barely discernible. In fact, it was worse than negligible because Washington callously supported Indonesian repression in East Timor for twenty-four years. It provided more than $1 billion in counter-insurgency equipment and other weapons to the killers; it provided military training for thousands of Indonesian armed forces, intelligence, and security personnel; and it provided diplomatic cover for annexation. The fruits of this U.S. "aid" are well known: more than a quarter of the population of East Timor was wiped out, along with any basic rights for the East Timorese people; torture and rape were ubiquitous; and whole villages were uprooted. In the past year, but especially since the August 30 referendum, the vast majority of the population has been driven from their homes, an unknown number killed, and much of the country laid waste, with almost three-quarters of the capital city of Dili burnt to the ground -- all in a final attempt to punish the East Timorese for asserting their independence from Indonesia.
Only when the atrocities were broadcast around the world by UN and other international observers did Washington announce that it was suspending military aid to Indonesia, instantly causing Indonesian President Habibie to do an about-face and agree to allow international peacekeepers into East Timor. Since then, the killing has subsided, though many East Timorese remain in peril.
So by discontinuing weapons' sales to the killers, Washington provided its first bit of real aid to the people of East Timor. But this hardly clears the moral ledger. Ceasing one's complicity with murder does not erase the consequences of a quarter century of complicity. In a moral world, Washington -- and all the other governments that put profits and strategic interests above decency -- would owe massive reparations to East Timor.
Have reparation payments ever worked in the past to redress governmental and corporate indecency? The answer is sometimes, although usually inadequately, and almost always unevenly. Too often political power governs the outcome rather than moral imperative.
After World War I, for example, reparations represented an attempt by one group of imperial powers to shift the costs of war to another.
In the years after the American Civil War, "forty acres and a mule" might have enabled those newly freed from slavery to make a start on building decent lives; instead African Americans were given many decades of Jim Crow.
In 1988, the U.S. government agreed to compensate those of Japanese descent who were interned in the United States during World War II. The legislation provided payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee and a $1.25 billion education fund.
German corporations are currently negotiating with representatives of those they held as slave laborers during World War II. The amount offered by the corporations is considered by many to be pathetically inadequate, but the principle that reparations are owed has been generally accepted.
On June 27, 1986, the World Court condemned the United States for its illegal support of the contra insurgency against the Sandinista government, and its economic warfare against Nicaragua. Although ordered to pay reparations, Washington has refused comply. Yet when the UN demanded reparations from Iraq for its illegal invasion of Kuwait, Washington was fully supportive. As of October 1, 1999, the UN Compensation Commission has dispersed $13 billion in reparations out of a fund made up of frozen Iraqi assets and a percentage of Iraqi oil sales.
Despite this hypocritical and too-little, too-late record regarding reparations, there are reasons why it might make sense to press for reparations for East Timor. First, reparations are morally warranted. Second, reparations would call powerful institutions to task for the suffering they cause, and expose the mechanisms by which crimes - such as those that mark East Timor's recent past - get committed.
Here are some questions to consider about reparations in this specific case.
Indonesian military and political leaders clearly bear primary responsibility for the harm caused to East Timor. Yet given Indonesia's desperate financial condition, it is an unlikely source of reparations. The governments that armed Indonesia -- especially the U.S. - and the corporations that invested in Indonesia and/or profited from arming it, are more able to pay. And they should.
There is no monetary amount that could adequately compensate the East Timorese for their loss. However, reparations would support their efforts to rebuild. In wrongful death cases, U.S. courts often compensate family members by figuring out how much income, as well as "hedonic value" (the ability to experience pleasure), was lost by a death. Determining people's worth by income and assigning a value to pleasure is ludicrous in many respects, but it at least offers a starting point: Say we take 200,000 deaths, multiply by a per capita income of $400 a year, triple it for foregone pleasure, multiply by 25 years of life lost on average, we come to a very conservative figure of $6 billion. Take into account torture, rape and false imprisonment, the denial of basic human rights, the physical and environmental destruction, and we get at least $12 billion.
Reparations from the U.S. (and other nations and corporations) should be paid all at once to a UN agency in charge of dispensing it, so as to minimize the danger of Washington's threatening to withhold the aid in order to obtain Timorese compliance with U.S. wishes. The UN agency should work with grassroots and elected bodies in East Timor to decide how reparations should be channeled to compensate individual and social losses.
After World War II, Japan paid reparations to many nations in Southeast Asia, with critics noting that the reparations were in the form of goods that were designed to give Japanese companies a share in markets from which they had previously been absent. Likewise, much US foreign aid -- even when not traded directly for military base rights, diplomatic compliance, or the like; and even apart from the subsidy it provides to various US industries -- has some negative effects on the economy of the recipient nation. It should be up to the people of East Timor to decide how they want the aid, knowing the potential negative consequences, but believing that they are outweighed by the positive. US citizens should support their decision, but still press as much as we can to minimize those negatives.
East Timorese leaders are in a very difficult position. Pressing moral claims for reparations -- however deserving - may actually dampen international good will and yield less in the way of aid. Appreciating their predicament, but taking advantage of our relative freedom of action, we can afford to make the political demands that our Timorese comrades may be unable to raise on their own. Charles Scheiner, testifying on October 6 before the 4th (Decolonization) Committee of the UN General Assembly on behalf of IFET, the International Federation for East Timor, put it well, "Members of the international community, especially governments on the Security Council, should be held responsible for ignoring warnings that the Indonesian military planned massive atrocities after a pro-independence vote. In addition to developing accountability for complicity by inaction, such crimes must never happen again anywhere in the world. One outcome could be reparations paid to the people of East Timor not only by the government of Indonesia, but by all nations who stood by as the wheels of destruction continued to turn."