Indonesia and East Timor have agreed to set up a joint commission to investigate the murder and destruction surrounding the Timorese vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999. Human rights campaigners have already expressed doubts about how seriously the two countries want to look into the matter.
No one knows exactly how many people died during Jakarta's bloody campaign to intimidate the East Timorese into voting to remain part of Indonesia. The United Nations Serious Crimes Unit estimates that the number is about 1,500, but six years after the fact, Indonesia has failed to hold responsible anyone in the armed forces or their proxies in the militias.
After a meeting with the United Nations secretary general in New York Tuesday, the Indonesian and East Timorese foreign ministers announced that they were going to set up a joint commission to investigate the violence.
The new government of East Timor has made a tactical decision that good relations with its giant neighbor are in the long term more important than an aggressive campaign for justice for the victims of 1999.
Human rights campaigners say they are worried that in pursuit of this policy, the Timorese government will be party to another attempt by the Indonesians to whitewash the killings.
The announcement of the joint commission has failed to placate rights activists. They say the government of neither country has shown any will to press for the effective prosecution of those responsible for the 1999 violence.
Jaoquim Fonseca, who worked for a human rights monitoring organization in Timor in 1999, and is now a university lecturer in the East Timorese capital Dili, has no faith in the new commission.
"I don't think that is the way to go, because in any case the brief of that commission wouldn't be justice, so people should not expect it to serve justice…I don't see it as an appropriate measure to address the issue of injustice in East Timor," he said.
There were calls for an international tribunal in the immediate aftermath of the violence, but Indonesia headed them off by setting up its own special courts. Six years later, the Indonesians have failed to put anyone behind bars, leading to new calls for international involvement.
A number of countries, including the United States and Britain, are pushing for an international committee to review the failure of previous tribunals to assign guilt to anyone. Senior Indonesian officials have told the media the new commission is designed to head off such moves.