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UN: Security Council Considers Peacekeeping Force For East Timor

  • Joe Lauria

The United Nations Security Council is contemplating sending a 6,000 strong peacekeeping force to East Timor. The Indonesian territory recently voted for independence under a UN-sponsored balloting. What followed was chaos and violence directed against the population of East Timor by pro-Jakarta militia. Joe Lauria, our special correspondent at the UN, takes a look at the latest situation.

United Nations, 8 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A UN official says a 6,000-man international force could be deployed in East Timor as early this weekend if Indonesian troops do not stop the killing, looting and forcible deportations that followed the territory's vote last week for independence.

Two obstacles would first have to be overcome before the Security Council could vote on sending the force, which would be led by Australia -- which says it can send in 2,000 troops on 24 hours notice -- with possible contributions from Canada, Portugal, Malaysia, the Philippines, and the United States. The force would not fly under the UN flag.

A UN official who asked not to be identified told our UN correspondent that the Indonesian government must first agree to accept the force on East Timorese soil. The official said:"If they say no to that we will just have to watch the mayhem continue."

China could also block the force if it vetoes the resolution that would set it up, since Beijing has repeatedly opposed UN-backed efforts to intervene in civil conflicts. The Chinese fear that precedents could be set that would one day allow an intervention in places like Tibet, which China rules in the face of an independence movement there.

But China has usually abstained on such resolutions, such as previous UN interventions in Bosnia and Somalia. On Kosovo, China's and Russia's threat of a veto prevented the UN from approving NATO's military operation. So far, Australia has said it wouldn't act without UN and Indonesian approval.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Sunday night that Indonesia would have 24 to 48 hours to quell the violence in East Timor. "If there is not a dramatic change for the better then we will have to talk to Indonesia about alternative measures to try to get the situation under control," UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

On the record UN officials are declining comment about contingency plans for the international force. The Security Council has not yet taken up the issue.

But Eckhard said Indonesia would be asked formally to accept the peace force on Wednesday if the violence continues. He said a five-member team from the Security Council arrived in Jakarta Tuesday night New York time and "if the situation does not improve, they would be in the position to talk to Indonesia about next steps."

The spokesman said it would be "political suicide" for Annan to push for such a force from the Security Council, however.

"The Secretary General has taken a keen interest in the composition of a possible intervention force should Indonesia request such assistance from the United Nations," Eckhard said.

The violence that has erupted in East Timor since Saturday has apparently taken many diplomats and UN officials by surprise. And they were slow to admit that Indonesia has reneged on the promise it made to provide security for the Aug. 30 referendum, which showed some 78 percent of East Timor's voters favored independence from Jakarta.

Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 soon after it gained independence from Portugal. No country but Australia has recognized Indonesia's annexation of the territory. East Timor rebels have waged a guerrilla war against pro-Indonesian militia ever since.

After Indonesia's financial crisis led to the down fall of President Suharto last year, a window of opportunity opened up to resolve the Timor crisis when the new president, B.J. Habibe, said he would allow a popular referendum to decide its future.

On May 5, the UN, Indonesia and Portugal agreed to allow the UN to hold the vote. Security was put in the hands of Indonesian military and police -- the same forces that had been responsible for 24 years of repression in Timor.

But the international community was banking on Indonesia's need to prove to the world that it was embracing democracy and human rights after the Suharto era. Indonesia was also dependent on a $48 billion International Monetary Fund lifeline that keep the country afloat after the currency crisis.

Though Habibe and his top military commanders may have been completely sincere in their desire to provide security, the Indonesian military in East Timor may simply not have followed orders. They have stood by while the pro-Jakarta militia in Timor terrorized the population, according to eyewitness accounts.

The army's greatest concern is that an independent East Timor may lead other parts of the 16,000 island archipelago that makes up Indonesia to demand independence, most notably Aceh on the island of Sumatra and Irian Jaya.

Eckhard said that at the time of the May 5 agreement there was no discussion about sending in a UN peacekeeping force to maintain order during the campaigning, the voting and the aftermath.

He said there was little skepticism that Indonesia would not follow through with its promise though it appeared to observers to be a classic case of the fox guarding the chicken coop.

Eckhard did say there were concerns about what would happen after the vote, but the UN has kept its faith in Indonesia until Sunday, when its special representative in East Timor finally pronounced Indonesia's security operation "a failure."

Part of the thinking behind sending in a force to put down the violence is the memory of the UN's failure in Rwanda when one million people were killed, mostly with machetes, in just four months during the summer of 1994.

The UN official said: "Rwanda is being mentioned because machetes are being used in East Timor and because [General Romeo] Dellaire [the head of the UN mission in Rwanda] said at the start of the massacres to give him 5,000 armed men and he could have put a stop to it."

Observers say the UN can hardly afford another Rwanda. This time, if Indonesia asks for the forces, because "you are dealing with machete-wielding and automatic rifle-weapon-wielding thugs you can't talk nice to these people and ask them to please walk on the sidewalk," the UN official said. "You've to go in with the guns cocked."

The next day or so will determine whether that happens or not.