Sunday, September 13, 2009

If now is not a good time to subject war criminals to justice, when is?

Two weeks ago, East Timor's Government, without judicial authority, released a man who has been charged by a UN panel with crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, enforced disappearance, torture, rape, deportation and persecution. His alleged crimes include taking part in the slaughter of up to 200 men, women and children in Suai, East Timor, on September 6, 1999.

None of this was far away, long ago. Next Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the landing of an Australian-led force to end massacres, like the one at Suai, unleashed by Indonesian officers after East Timor voted for independence. In a speech on the August 30 anniversary of the vote, President Jose Ramos Horta ruled out an international war crimes tribunal. ''We must put the past behind us,'' he said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Indonesian leaders last week after Australian Federal Police launched a formal investigation into the murders of five Australian-based journalists in Balibo, East Timor, in October 1975.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said it was a backwards step that could damage relations between Jakarta and Canberra. Jakarta's response was echoed by respected, well-informed commentators in Australia, including Hugh White, a former senior
Defence Department official. Australia's ''obsession'' with Balibo was, he said, a distraction that risked harming relations with modern, democratic Indonesia.

The Age's Michelle Grattan agreed, asking if it was wise to ''pick at'' a tragedy from decades ago. She pointed out Indonesia is now a democracy and argued: ''Our national interest won't be particularly served by going down a path that could put our two countries at odds.''
Implicit in this line of argument is that ''national interest'' should take precedence over the independent functions of police and courts. It assumes countries can't atone for events of the past while focusing on the future. And it implies Indonesian democracy is so fragile that powerful men accused of atrocities can't be called to account.

And it prompts the question: if now is not a good time to subject war criminals to justice, when is?

Excerpt from SMH.Tom Hyland is international editor.

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