International Socialist Archives

International Socialist was the journal produced by our tendency until January 2001, when we left the Committee for a Workers International. We now produce the journal Frontline.

What Can The UN Achieve in East Timor?

As the world looks on in horror at the massacres and brutality perpetrated by militias backed by the Indonesian regime, United Nations troops land in East Timor. JAMES LONG assesses the role the UN plays on the world stage.

AS UNITED NATIONS troops entered East Timor a propaganda offensive was launched to try to restore the UN's somewhat tarnished image. Pictures of East Timorese warmly welcoming UN forces were widely shown, as were images of a very limited number of militia members being disarmed. So determined was this publicity drive that the aid agency, Medicins Sans Frontieres, complained that, while 100 journalists had been immediately flown in, they were being told that there was no space for their medical staff on the first flights into the East Timorese capital, Dili.
Simultaneously, US president, Bill Clinton, was making a speech to the UN General Assembly mouthing cheap words and platitudes about supporting UN "intervention to deal with violations of human rights". While praising the UN force going into East Timor, Clinton simply ignored his statement less than two weeks previously that East Timor was "still part of Indonesia". But all this "image making" and "spinning" cannot cover up the whole story of what happened to East Timor, not just in the past weeks, but since Indonesiaís invasion, ordered by ex-president General Suharto, in 1975. This is a story which clearly shows the real role of both the UN and the imperialist powers.

Working-class people everywhere watched in horror as the overwhelming majority of the Maubere (East Timorese) people, within days of voting by 78.5% in favour of independence in a 98.6% turnout, were threatened with being ethnically cleansed from East Timor by the Indonesian military's scorched earth campaign. The UN's self-congratulation at supervising this ballot quickly turned into helplessness as a handful of UN workers displayed their inability to stop the brutal killings and destruction of homes and infrastructure.

Millions around the world were demanding that something be done to protect the Maubere, demanding action to stop the killings. They were incensed by the UN's complete inaction initially to defend the result of the referendum it had organised. A wave of criticism rose rapidly in country after country. Above all in Australia, amid mass protests, trade unionists went into action putting boycotts on communications and trade with Indonesia. Dock workers around the country refused to load or unload Indonesian ships or cargo. In Melbourne and Sydney airports, building and metal workers blockaded the Indonesian airline Garuda's check-in areas.

One of the reasons for this surge of action was the backing which different Australian governments, both Labor and Liberal, had given to the military regime in the past. Australia was the one major country which officially recognised Suharto's 1976 annexation of East Timor and later, in 1989, signed the Timor Gap treaty with Suharto for the joint exploitation of oil and gas in the seas around the country. The year before the invasion, the then Australian Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, told Suharto that he considered East Timor an "unviable state" and a "potential threat to the stability of the area". By "stability" Whitlam meant the security of capitalist interests.

But this year's magnificent action by Australian workers has been diverted, especially by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, into calls for UN action. This was not accidental. For decades workers' leaders in many countries, together with the former Stalinist states, had sought to replace the idea of workers' international action with putting their trust in the UN. The workers' movementís original idea of being part of an international which could organise action in support of working people and the oppressed had been watered down and then suppressed over a long period of time. While there was widespread international solidarity with the 1984/85 British miners strike, for example, when there were calls for more politically-based boycotts, like those called against the old apartheid regime in South Africa, leaders often linked them to the UN.

Imperialist hypocrisy

IN THIS SITUATION it was understandable why millions of ordinary working people asked "What is the UN doing?" Only months ago the world was awash with the fine words of Nato leaders as they bombed Serbia claiming to be trying to stop ethnic cleansing. Now the same leaders stalled, refused to do anything, speaking instead of the need to get agreement first with the Jakarta regime, the organisers of the killing.

There was a stunning contrast between the UN's rhetoric and their almost total inaction. For many the hypocrisy was sickening. The UN was saying it could not intervene in East Timor unless Indonesia allowed it, despite the fact that the UN formally regarded Indonesia as an illegal occupying power. Many asked what was the difference between East Timor and Kosova? Nato's military campaign in Serbia began without any agreement with the Belgrade government! In a formal sense, "legally" there was no difference between Indonesiaís 1975 invasion of East Timor and Iraq’s 1990 take-over of Kuwait. But despite many more East Timorese dying - at least 200,000, a quarter of the population - nothing was done for decades.

But the striking differences between the UN's response to East Timor compared to Kosova or Kuwait, were not at all accidental. UN policy, and especially any action it undertakes, is fundamentally determined by the main world powers and, especially, the US ruling class. Despite all the talk of "moral politics", policy is decided by what is in the imperialist powers' own interests. Thus human rights outrages by their friends or current allies are supported, condoned or effectively overlooked.

This was the reason why the UN was completely inactive during Russia's 1994-96 war with Chechnya. Unlike Kosova, Chechnya was declared an "internal", "police" matter. This was because the Western powers were desperate to shore up the Yeltsin regime, a desperation which has now been seen to have allowed billions of US dollars to have been "laundered" into the pockets of Yeltsin's circle. In Kosova the West finally acted because they feared that the policies of Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, would destabilise the entire Balkan area.
In the 1980s, the Western powers had ensured that no action arose from the various UN resolutions criticising Saddam Husseinís use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1984-86 or against Iraqi Kurds in 1988. After all, that was a time when Hussein was a de facto ally of the West, at least as long as his regime was fighting Iran!

For years nothing was done about the occupation and brutal repression in East Timor. When, five days after the Indonesian military's December 1975 invasion of East Timor, the UN General Assembly first passed a resolution of condemnation, the USA and most West European nations abstained. But this was to be expected. Suharto was one of their main allies in the region and the fate of the East Timorese was merely small change in the imperialists' calculations. For years nothing was done, despite the horrific reports of the killings and starvation resulting from the actions of the Indonesian military.

Containing the independence movement

IT WAS ONLY the start of the Indonesian revolution in May 1998 which forced a change of course. The limited freedom which was won in the first stages of the revolution allowed a resurgence of East Timorese demands for independence. In this situation the imperialist powers advised the Jakarta regime to retreat. But even then a key imperialist consideration was to avoid undermining the Indonesian military and the break-up of the rest of the country.
This was the reason why, despite all the public warnings about what the Indonesian military were planning in East Timor, the UN did nothing. The great powers running the UN did not want to clash with the Indonesian regime or to give the impression to other nations struggling for independence that they could expect international support. When finally the great powers felt forced to agree to a UN intervention, it was to be, as on previous occasions, on their own terms. This meant trying to ensure that there was to be no revolutionary movement by the East Timorese, to avoid providing a spur to the revolution in Indonesia itself.
A sign of this was the pledge of the Australian commander, Major General Peter Cosgrove, on his first day in Dili, to be "even-handed" with "both factions" - "even-handed" with the military forces which the UN say are illegally occupying East Timor and have organised the scorched earth ethnic cleansing. This meant trying to keep the East Timorese under control. Furthermore, the implementation of the UN policy of "disarming both sides" would mean leaving the East Timorese masses defenceless. This policy also means putting severe limits on the self-organisation of the East Timorese people.

This intervention aims to secure for world imperialism increased stability in the region and also to ensure that the East Timorese liberation movement abandons its previous radical policies, thereby confirming the pro-capitalist character of an independent East Timorese government. It is not at all accidental that there were "free market" clauses in the UN-sponsored "peace deals" in both Bosnia and Kosova. The UN stands firmly on the basis of the capitalist system and in East Timor it will carry out the same policy of putting the pro-capitalist elements in power.
Given the widespread international mood for "democracy", however, the imperialist powers have to be careful how they act. One of the reasons the UN finally intervened, albeit in a very limited way, was as an attempt to respond to the pressure of popular opinion. While this does not change the fundamental character of the UN's intervention, it once again shows the difficulties faced by the imperialist powers whenever they attempt open interference in any country. This is why "spinning" is important to the imperialist powers. And a key part of the "spin' is to dress-up the UN.

Democratic control of the UN?

WHAT IS THE UN's record? Can it really be an instrument for world peace and harmony? Even a brief examination of its history since its foundation in 1945 reveals an inability to implement its own decisions when they are opposed by the big powers. On a few occasions during the "cold war" the imperialist powers were able to use the UN as a cover, for instance, during their struggle with Stalinism in the 1950-53 Korean war, and to derail the development of a radical regime in the Congo from 1960-64.

Those who attempt to divert the idea of internationalism into safe UN channels sometimes argue for a "democratisation" of the UN, either through removing the veto rights of the five permanent members of the security council (the US, Russia, China, Britain and France) or by increasing the number of permanent members. But the UN's role is not just determined by security council permanent members using, or threatening to use, their veto. A removal of these powers, or other proposals to democratise the UN, would not fundamentally change what it could and could not do.
The fact is that the major powers will not allow their fundamental interests to be challenged by the UN. The US's cynicism towards the UN is shown by the fact that it currently owes $1.7 billion in unpaid dues. Of course, one or more of the big powers may try and use the UN as a smokescreen in a clash with rivals, as in the Korean war. But this would not be the UN acting in the interests of the peoples of the world.

The fundamental reason that the UN cannot be democratically transformed is that a state's foreign policy is the continuation of its home policy: capitalist policies at home inevitably mean capitalist foreign policies. And the armed forces of these countries not only carry out these policies abroad, but also stand as the final guarantors of the ruling class's power within their own countries. This is why any illusions in the "democratic" role of capitalist armies, even if they are wearing blue helmets, are dangerous for the workers' movement. Armed forces which have been developed and trained to defend the capitalist system cannot act in the interests of working-class people.
Only the workers' movement, the working class acting in its own common interests, can challenge the wealth and power of the imperialist governments and giant corporations which dominate the world. The struggle for working-class people to have real power and plan the use of the globe's resources in their own interests comes down to the struggle against capitalism and landlordism.
But, it may be asked, was this realistic in the case of East Timor? There it was a question of acting immediately to stop the killings. Was there any alternative to demanding the UN action or, as some did, calling on governments like that of Australia to intervene?

Workers' action and solidarity

THE OUTLINES OF an alternative to relying on the UN or different imperialist governments was being concretely shown in the rapid development of widespread solidarity as workers, especially in Australia and also Canada, took action. The extension of a boycott of trade with Indonesia, especially if coupled with the demand for the freezing of the overseas assets of its ruling elite, would have had an immediate impact. At the same time, this could have been linked to a call for the East Timorese to organise their own self-defence, for the fighters of Falantil (the main East Timorese pro-independence guerrilla group) to join in this defence, and to appeal to the Indonesian working masses and youth to oppose the military chiefs' plans for counter-revolution in both East Timor and Indonesia itself.

Despite some individuals and organisations mistakenly opposing boycotts because, they claim, it could be counter-productive, the actions already being taken were a powerful warning both to the Indonesian ruling class and its international backers.

The predictable response of the Indonesian ruling class to the boycott and the entry of UN troops was to launch bogus "anti-imperialist" propaganda, particularly denouncing the Australian government. This was, of course, completely hypocritical given the close relations over decades between successive Australian governments and the Suharto regime.

But the Indonesian elite acted to utilise the deep rooted anti-imperialist feelings of the people in order to provide cover for attempting to act against the as yet unfinished revolution. It was no accident that, within a few days of the UN troops arriving in Dili, the Jakarta regime attempted to introduce a new law giving the military greater internal powers.

This cynical use of "anti-imperialism" could have an effect because of the history of Indonesiaís own struggle for independence from Dutch rule. Its experience at the end of the second world war left a deep feeling of mistrust towards "democratic" Western armies as, along with many other countries, Indonesia has suffered at the hands of "liberating" foreign troops.

In 1945 the British army arrived in Indonesia to ensure that the defeated Japanese occupiers were replaced by the return of the previous Dutch colonial power. In November, the killing of General Mallaby led to the "Battle of Surabaya", when a combined British air, land and sea attack on this Javan city left 15,000 Indonesians dead, an event still marked every 10 November as "Heroes Day". The British intervention helped the Dutch ruling class's attempt to hold onto their colony in a war which ultimately ended in their defeat in mid-1949.

This history made it easier for the Indonesian ruling class to attempt to whip-up "nationalist" sentiment, despite this being a very dangerous weapon which could backfire by damaging their own, present day, links with imperialism. The only way in which this nationalism could be undercut would be by the workers' movement making clear that the sanctions were not against the Indonesian working masses, but against the ruling elite. In this way, workers internationally could show their support for those struggling to complete the revolution begun last year and to overthrow the Indonesian ruling elite.

The argument that the only realistic way to have stopped the TNI (the Indonesian army) and militia scorched earth policy was the entry of foreign troops, totally ignores the question of what polices these troops will actually carry out. As John Pilger wrote in the London Guardian, "The real agenda for the UN "peace keeping" force is to ensure that East Timor, while nominally independent in the future, remains under the sway of Jakarta and Western business interests". (21 August 1999)

This imperialist agenda can only be cut across by a combination of the East Timorese working class and poor striving to break with capitalism, while appealing for the continuation and deepening of international solidarity, especially with Indonesian workers, students and rural poor.
The struggle for an independent Socialist East Timor is not aimed against the Indonesian masses. A successful completion of the Indonesian revolution would open up the possibility of a free and equal collaboration between different peoples. But this can only be achieved on the basis of overthrowing capitalism and landlordism, based upon independent action by workers and youth.
It is towards creating this independent action that socialists must strive. Looking towards bodies like the UN not only means creating illusions in them, but it also pretends that there is a substitute for action by the workers' movement. Socialists should work to build political and practical solidarity between all the forces struggling for liberation in both East Timor and Indonesia. This is the policy advocated by the Committee for a Workers International. In this way, we are helping to recreate on a wider scale the fighting traditions of workers' internationalism which Australian workers have demonstrated in the past weeks and which is the basis upon which a socialist world can be built.