East Timor: Reparations and Responsibility

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 –

get committed.


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."

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