David Webster discussed transitional justice in East Timor by emphasizing two points: the importance of different narratives and framings of the struggle in East Timor, and the role of non-state actors in advocacy efforts.
Webster’s discussion of how “words matter” focused on how rhetoric describing East Timor as a “lost cause” was used by Western officials prior to East Timor’s independence to claim that independence could not be achieved, and thus it was useless to support it. This rhetoric shaped policy in the West, and did not shift until Timorese convincingly demonstrated that their cause was far from lost at the end of the nineties. This change was accomplished in part by shifting the frame from a liberation struggle to a human rights issue, which allowed Timorese to reach non-state allies overseas.
Turning to current issues of impunity and international justice, Webster suggested that similar strategies and framings could be employed to debunk the notion that justice itself is a “lost cause.” The struggle against impunity can be just as “contagious” as impunity itself. The idea of reparative justice may be appealing to non-state supporters of East Timor overseas, who can be mobilized to pressure the Timorese government into prioritizing accountability.
David Cohen: Transitional Justice in East Timor: Overview and Assessment
David Cohen began his presentation with a photograph of the last day of the last trial of the Special Panel for Serious Crimes (SPSC), which revealed a nearly empty, modest courtroom with no media presence. Cohen explained that he was using the photo to reveal the “erratic nature” of support of the UN and international community for international justice processes. According to Cohen, every phase of transitional justice in East Timor was characterized by a lack of political will.
Cohen then discussed the shortcomings of international justice institutions more generally, which he attributed to a shift of attention away from hybrid tribunals and toward the ICC; donor fatigue; and the extremely high costs of the ad hoc tribunals. Turning more specifically on the SPSC, Cohen pointed out that most trials did not meet basic international trials fair standards, and that the focus exclusively on 1999 neglected incidents in previous years. Moreover, the narrow factual focus of trials prevented the creation of a coherent account of the overall organization of crimes against humanity. Finally, when the UN’s mission ended, so too did its justice process; the Serious Crimes Investigative Team (SCIT) that replaced the court was mandated only to complete investigations, but was unable to issue indictments. Meanwhile, though the ad hoc tribunal in Jakarta was able to pursue high-level officials, the prosecution was often incompetent. Though there was a relatively high number of convictions, all were overturned on appeal.
Cohen concluded with a series of recommendations, after acknowledging that he felt there was very little potential for the creation of an international tribunal. There is a possibility for domestic prosecutions, but political will is a prerequisite. Political will may be generated by spreading public truth and embarrassing governments into acting. To accomplish this purpose, Cohen made five suggestions: 1) much broader socialization of the CAVR report; 2) broader socialization of the CTF report; 3) making public redacted versions of the investigative files from SCIT; 4) creating a people’s tribunal modeled on the Tokyo women’s tribunal; and 5) demanding the opening of the TMI archives on East Timor.