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Article 21: Right to take part in and select government

  • In 1999, after 450 years of foreign rule and 25 years of Indonesian occupation, the East Timorese voted for independence in a popular referendum supervised by the UN.
  • The vote inspired a backlash from retreating Indonesian soldiers and militias. More than 1,000 East Timorese were massacred and hundreds of thousands were forcibly displaced into West Timor.
  • The United Nations' transitional administration in East Timor (UNTAET) oversaw the creation of a functioning democracy in the territory until East Timor became a fully independent country on 20 May 2002.
  • Many challenges lay ahead for the new nation, including how to deal with the perpetrators of atrocities, the hundreds of thousands of refugees and poverty.

Historical Context

The territory of East Timor, or Timor Lorosae, has been occupied by one foreign power or another for 450 years.

In August 1975, the Portuguese withdrew from East Timor after centuries of domination and rule. Four months later, Indonesia invaded and incorporated East Timor as its 27th province.

Indonesia occupied East Timor for 25 years. During that period, it is estimated that in a population of less than one million, 200,000 people died from violence, hunger and disease.

On 30 August 1999, Indonesia agreed to allow the East Timorese decide the fate of their government in a popular referendum. They could either accept special autonomy for East Timor within Indonesia or they could reject it and become fully independent from Indonesia.

Nearly 99% of the East Timorese voted in the referendum, and a majority of 78.5% rejected the proposed special autonomy in favour of total independence from Indonesia.

Violent Retaliation

The call for independence from Indonesia was immediately met with brutal violence. Backed by Indonesian armed forces, pro-Indonesian militia groups responded by killing at least 1,000 people and deporting hundreds of thousands to Indonesian West Timor. Town and villages were destroyed by the troops.

The UN responded to the violence by deploying troops on 20 September 1999 and introducing a transitional administration in East Timor (UNTAET) on 26 October. For the first time, the UN took on the role of building a functioning democracy.

Creating Democracy

With the help of the UN, the Democratic Republic of East Timor officially came into being on 20 May 2002.

An 88-member constituent assembly was elected in August 2001 during the first free democratic elections in East Timor. The assembly wrote the country's constitution, which created a democratic republic with a parliament, prime minister and ceremonial president.

The first presidential elections were held on 14 April 2002. The winner was Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader in the struggle for independence. Gusmao is a legend among his people and it is hoped his popularity will help to stabilise the country.

Upon independence, the UN transitional government (UNTAET) was replaced by the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET), which will remain in the country until at least May 2004.

Upon independence, the UN transitional government (UNTAET) was replaced by the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET), which will remain in the country until at least May 2004.

East Timor became the 191st member of the United Nations on 27 September 2002.

Justice and Reconciliation

East Timor's transition to democracy has been clouded by the fact that the majority of the people who perpetrated atrocities in 1999 have not been held accountable for their crimes.

Most of the perpetrators live in Indonesia, and the government refuses to extradite suspects to the East Timor authorities.

After intense pressure from the international community, the Indonesian government created a human rights tribunal in Jakarta to prosecute crimes against humanity committed in 1999. The tribunal was set up to try government officials and members of security forces.

Many observers have criticised the tribunal's failure to indict a key suspect, General Wiranto, the chief of Indonesian armed forces at the time of the massacres. Moreover, the officials who have already been tried have either been acquitted or given lenient sentences.

Both the United Nations Human Rights Commission and human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have argued that the trials have been deeply flawed from the beginning.

Human rights advocates argue that another UN-sponsored international criminal tribunal should be created for East Timor the way it was for atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The leaders of East Timor, however, are divided over the fate of the militia members who perpetrated atrocities.

In an effort to promote a spirit of national unity and reconciliation, President Gusmao has urged that those accused of violence should be given amnesty. However, prime minister Mari Alkatiri argues that justice must be served.

More Challenges Ahead

The government must also face the challenge of repatriating thousands of refugees.

Over 250,000 East Timorese fled to West Timor following the vote for independence in 1999, many under the threat of force. Although most have returned to East Timor in recent months, it is estimated that around 30,000 East Timorese are still living as refugees in camps in Indonesia.

The UN has stated that any refugees remaining in West Timor at the end of 2002 will be henceforth considered Indonesian citizens.

East Timor also faces considerable economic challenges as one of Asia's poorest countries.