Cynthia Peters and
Stephen R. Shalom
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."
far as we know, the New York Times doesn’t run clarifications on its
corrections. But it might start with this one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
World War I, for example, reparations represented an attempt by one group of
imperial powers to shift the costs of war to another.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 –
are some questions to consider about reparations in this specific case.
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.
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
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.
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
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."