The limits of nonviolent intervention?

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Feature by Maggie Helwig

On 5 May 1999, the United Nations and the governments of Indonesia and Portugal signed an agreement to hold a consultation as to public opinion, in East Timor, about Indonesia's offer of special autonomy for the territory.

The rather byzantine agreement, the result of Kofi Annan's seizing upon an impulsive remark of Indonesian President Habibie, who in an unguarded moment had said that if the Timorese didn't want autonomy he would let them just go was in fact a thinly-disguised vote on independence. The UN and Portugal succeeded in framing the consultation as a one-person, one-vote ballot, and establishing that if the vote went against autonomy, the only other result would be independence.

However, there were significant flaws in the agreement one in particular would prove nearly fatal. The first serious problem was the timetable. The UN and Portugal believed (reasonably, though, as it turned out, wrongly) that Megawati Sukarnoputri would be elected president of Indonesia in October. Megawati was adamantly opposed to the consultation process and might be expected to cancel the agreement; thus it was necessary to mount the entire huge operation within a few months. The most profound flaw, however, was that security was to be left entirely in the hands of the Indonesian police and military. Though the Indonesians were theoretically committed to providing a peaceful atmosphere for the consultations, and though both the Timorese guerrilla army Falintil, and the Indonesian-sponsored militias, were theoretically supposed to retreat to cantonment areas, the UN would have no more than moral persuasion to enforce these promises. And, as it happened, though Falintil did indeed withdraw to cantonments (where most members of Falintil remain even now, more than a year later), the militias continued to become more and more violent, and the Indonesian army continued to provide them with guns and money.

Moral force

It has been argued that the UN should not have gone ahead with the consultation under these conditions; but it is not clear that they had another choice. The major economic players the World Bank and IMF, the US and Japanese governments and the EU, upon whom Indonesia depends for aid were unwilling to entertain the idea of sanctions. (It is not, in any case, certain that sanctions would have been effective; this will remain an unanswerable question.) A call for UN sanctions could not have passed in either the Security Council or the General Assembly. Kofi Annan, on the advice of the Timorese leadership, decided that a flawed vote was better than no vote at all, and the 5 May agreement was put into effect.

Among other things, this meant that the entire UN mission UNAMET would be unarmed; that no UN personnel, even the military liaison and civilian police officers, would carry any kind of weapon or have any real coercive power. Neither, of course, would the hundreds of NGO representatives, electoral monitors and journalists who would arrive in East Timor over the next months. All would, however unwillingly, rely entirely on moral force, and the words of the 5 May agreement, to carry out their tasks. In a sense, UNAMET's mission in East Timor became an example of an unusually large, unusually well-resourced nonviolent intervention. As such, it presents some interesting dilemmas, and perhaps some lessons, for the nonviolent movement.

The vote itself was more successful than almost anyone might have predicted, and illustrates, if nothing else, the ability of the UN, when motivated, to carry off a huge logistical challenge within a small window of opportunity. (It is probably useful to campaigners on Western Sahara to know that a vote can be carried out within just four months of the initial agreement when this is seen to be necessary.) For the most part, UNAMET staff were effective and committed, and sometimes exceptionally brave there are accounts of the civilian police, in particular, facing down armed militia members with nothing but a uniform and an authoritative voice. The pro- autonomy forces were unable to carry out widespread fraud, despite attempts to bus West Timorese over the border to register to vote. And, largely thanks to East Timorese who worked for the UN as volunteers, voter education was widespread and effective.

A demonstration of determination

While the UNAMET operation was by no means perfect, on the whole relationships between UNAMET and NGO electoral monitors were good, and the UN was willing to intervene fairly strongly an apply pressure on Indonesia to ensure that NGOs were able to receive visas; though there were initial fears that some NGOs would not be able to get accreditation as monitors, these turned out to be unfounded. In some cases, NGOs were able to say things that UNAMET workers wanted to say but could not, and this part of the UNAMET/NGO relationship was understood by both sides.

The success of the vote was most of all, of course, a tremendous demonstration of the determination of the Timorese population. Despite militia violence which had displaced a significant part of the population from their homes, most adult Timorese managed to register. They guarded their registration cards against theft and destruction with passionate care. They walked for hours through the countryside and down the mountains, knowingly risking their lives, to line up at polling stations and cast their ballots; older people carried by younger relatives, at least one man brought from the hospital in a stretcher.

There appears to have been a deliberate decision by the Indonesian security forces to allow the vote to go ahead relatively peacefully. Perhaps they still believed that they could win; perhaps the sheer number of people at the polling stations, and the concentration of media attention, were a deterrent. But on the night of the vote the violence resumed as a Timorese UN volunteer was killed on his way back from a polling station and it escalated rapidly. In a museum in Dili, the UN workers sped up the vote count, worried that the militias would attack their building and destroy the ballots, hoping that the announcement of the vote might discourage the militias. But it did the opposite; shortly after it was made public, on 4 September, that a large majority had voted against autonomy and hence in favour of independence, East Timor was in flames. And it was at this point that the limitations of both the UNAMET and the NGO intervention became clear.

Voluntary hostages

All NGO electoral monitors had evacuated East Timor by 7 September. A handful of internationals remained, mainly UN personnel, a small number of journalists, and a few members of religious orders who had been living in East Timor for some time already. These people staged what was, in one sense, an amazing nonviolent intervention; but in another sense a demonstration of their own eventual impotence. UNAMET headquarters in Dili, along with a few convents, held its ground; and several thousand fleeing Timorese poured over the fence. The militias, restrained by some lingering fear of international reaction, did not enter the UNAMET compound, though they did fire on it periodically.

Some of the details of what went on within the UN building in New York are not clear. It is known that at one point during the siege of the UNAMET compound, New York directed the international UN staff in Dili to evacuate; and that the international staff refused, knowing that the lives of the refugees in the compound, some of whom had been UN workers, were protected only by the remnant international presence.

But the unarmed defence of the UNAMET compound could never be more than a holding action. In no way could the remaining staff protect anyone except those physically inside the compound; they could have no effect outside Dili at all. They could not prevent the mass deportations to West Timor nor the near-complete destruction of the country's basic infrastructure. Ultimately, the only thing the UN staff could do was to make themselves hostages; hoping, it may be, to compel the Security Council to send an armed peacekeeping force into the territory.

We will never know, either, just what did finally cause the government of Indonesia to accept such a force. It may have been the economic sanctions eventually threatened by the IMF; it may have been a kind of public shaming carried out at the General Assembly and through the media. It may be though I believe this is improbable that when General Wiran to finally visited Dili he was genuinely shocked at how far things had gone; or it may be that Indonesia had planned to let go of East Timor all along, and simply gave in when they felt the Timorese had been sufficiently punished.

The impact of internationals

Could there have been another outcome? One might argue that a much larger international presence would have had a greater protective effect. Though probably true in theory, this runs up against several problems not only the issue of how to find personnel for such a large presence (UNAMET numbered 5000 and international observers probably around 2000), but the issue of whether a small and very poor country like East Timor can actually sustain such a large number of outsiders. The current UN mission in East Timor, UNTAET, is creating serious distortions of the country's economy; and a mission which did not import food, as UNTAET does, would most likely intolerably strain East Timor's slender resources. This is a real issue, not only in East Timor with which we must reckon if we are to think, or even dream, about unarmed forces of sufficient size to deter mass violence.

It has also been argued that if heavy economic sanctions had been applied, Indonesia would have ended the militia violence without a peacekeeping force being required. However, past cases where economic sanctions have been used suggest that, even when they do have their desired effect, it is far from immediate; and the desired effect is not necessarily achieved at all. The first two presidents of Indonesia, at different times, told the international community to go to hell with your aid!.

There is no guarantee that the third president would not have responded in exactly the same way. There is also some question as to how fully and directly the Indonesian military actually controlled the militias, once they were up and running.

That there was a good deal of control is beyond argument; that there was complete control, especially during the orgy of destruction in early September, is not so clear.

It may be that East Timor, in September 1999, was a particularly clear demonstration of the limits of nonviolent intervention; of a situation which had gone well beyond the possibility of control without the use of force. The question then becomes, at what point was that line crossed? When could nonviolent international intervention have changed the course of events in East Timor? The most pessimistic could argue that the last time there was a clear ability of the international community to ensure East Timor's independence without the use of force was prior to December 1975; optimists might put it as late as the spring of 1999. But in either case it would have required a consensus not only of international civil society, but of influential governments, able to apply economic and diplomatic sanctions to win concessions from Indonesia.