THE most powerful nations of the world pledged a commitment to human rights in Tokyo at the recent G-7 meeting. But not far away, in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony, one of this century's more serious cases of human rights abuse continue. For most of the 18 years of Indonesian occupation, world leaders have turned their backs on the East Timorese; if that does not change, the world may soon witness the disappearance of these peoples.
The latest Amnesty International report for East Timor, released in February 1993, cites continued "political killings, disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, political imprisonment, and the use of death penalty" throughout the territory. Since Indonesia's occupation of East Timor in 1975, following the withdrawal of Portuguese colonial troops, more than 200,000 East Timorese - a third of the population - have been killed.
Encouraging steps, but hardly enough, have recently been taken by the United States government. Last November, despite objections by the Bush administration, Congress cut military education and training funds for Indonesia. Yet this action was taken only after Western journalists witnessed a massacre of 270 East Timorese at a cemetery in Dili in November 1991.
President Clinton's support of a UN resolution expressing concern for human rights abuses in East Timor is a welcome shift in American policy. But these steps can be undermined if the Pentagon is allowed to sell military assistance to Indonesia, which it is trying to do under the foreign military sales program for 1994.
On June 30, in a bipartisan effort, 43 US senators sent a letter to Mr. Clinton urging him to keep "an eye toward facilitating serious negotiations at the United Nations that might alter the unacceptable status quo" in East Timor. The senators reaffirm an earlier (November 1991) Senate resolution supporting "the right of self-determination of the East Timorese people." They also stated that any negotiations on East Timor's future should include East Timorese representatives.
These requests are important given recent events on the ground: The Indonesian government continues its policy of ethnically diluting East Timor through a campaign of resettlement.
Adding to this are more than 10 UN resolutions condemning Indonesia's occupation of East Timor and recognizing the country's right to self-determination.
In May, Xanana Gusmao, leader of the East Timorese resistance who was thrown in jail last year, stated in a defense plea, "In my opinion, it [East Timor's invasion] has the same standing as the advance of the Iraqi troops in Kuwait, the same dimension as the advance of Russian tanks into Kabul, the same character as the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia."
Mr. Gusmao's trial, called by the government of Portugal "farcical and illegitimate," has come to symbolize Indonesia's disregard for human rights. Gusmao was sentenced to life in prison. He was not allowed to read past the second page of his 28-page defense statement; no one was allowed into the court other than the Indonesian judges.
THE UN conference on human rights this past June in Vienna, the first in 25 years, opened up another dimension of the problem faced by repressed peoples, and seems especially pertinent to the case of the East Timorese. The problem has become known as "the Asian view" on human rights. This view, strongly backed by Indonesia and China, argues that human rights are culturally relative and should be interpreted differently in non-Western societies. Such a view only gives dictators license to torture, impriso n, and murder at will under the guise of cultural difference.
If cultural difference is being suppressed in the third world, it is not due to the universality of human rights. Rather, it is suppressed by men in uniform, like those of Indonesian President Suharto's, who are able to push around vulnerable groups, like the East Timorese. Too often this has happened with either the compliance or indifference of the West.
Indonesia's attempts to justify its occupation on the grounds that East Timor is too small and too poor to exist as a sovereign nation is a cynical and self-serving argument. The truth is, Indonesia has strong economic interests at stake. In East Timor it stands to profit from potential resources that include natural gas, manganese, marble, and vast oil reserves. Both Indonesia and Australia have already profited from these resources. The Indonesian and Australian joint exploration of the Timor Gap since
1985 might be described as a simple theft of Timorese goods. Any fair solution for this case would have to involve economic compensation to the East Timorese for that which has been taken.
Indonesia and Portugal are expected to resume talks on East Timor on Sept. 17 in New York. High on the agenda should be respect for the "old" universal human rights of the East Timorese - including release of political prisoners and allowing humanitarian organizations into East Timor to conduct inspections. East Timorese representatives must also be allowed and invited to join in future negotiations concerning their own country.
During the talks in New York the US should raise with Gen. (Ret.) Suharto his violations in East Timor.
Domination and exploitation of weak nations have been history's stock in trade. But such domination is self-defeating. Suharto's regime, like other repressive regimes, seems not interested in such history lessons. Firm outside pressure will be a reminder that domination and exploitation cannot be tolerated.