On the night of November 12, 1997, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to block the use of U.S. weapons in occupied East Timor, placing an unprecedented restriction on U.S. arms sales to Indonesia. The Senate, which unanimously approved stronger language on September 5, is expected to enact the measure today.
The vote, on the sixth anniversary of the "Dili massacre" in East Timor, comes as the White House is offering a three billion dollar financial bailout for Indonesia, and on the eve of expected meetings involving President Clinton and Defense Secretary Cohen, and General Suharto, Indonesia's long-standing dictator.
The Congressional vote deals a severe blow to Suharto and his embattled regime, and may endanger all future weapons deals between Washington and Jakarta.
The new legislation, included in the foreign operations section of the FY 1998 appropriations bill, requires that any contract to sell lethal equipment to Indonesia "state that the United States expects that the items will not be used in East Timor."
The Indonesian government has stated repeatedly that it will not accept conditions on weapons sales, particularly conditions tied to its record on human rights. This spring, Suharto cancelled a pending F-16 fighter plane deal because members of Congress were talking about attaching human rights conditions.
The bar to U.S. weapons use in East Timor, sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), was crafted in House-Senate Conference Committee with unanimous bipartisan support.
The East Timor Action Network (ETAN) praised the vote as a turning point in the world-wide campaign to end Indonesia's illegal occupation of East Timor. ETAN mounted an extensive grassroots campaign on behalf of the legislation.
"This bill is unprecedented. It puts Jakarta on the spot. Now each time they sign a deal to acquire weapons from the United States, they will have to, in effect, agree not to use those arms in occupied East Timor" said ETAN National Coordinator Charles Scheiner.
Scheiner added that the bill is a political milestone because it constitutes implicit recognition by the U.S. Congress that, despite the Suharto regime's claims, East Timor is distinct from Indonesia.
Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and has occupied it ever since, despite two U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Jakarta to "withdraw without delay." The resolutions, as well as eight resolutions passed by the U.N. General Assembly, recognize the right of the East Timorese to self-determination. The U.N. classifies East Timor as a non-self-governing territory. The United States has never extended de jure recognition to the takeover.
According to estimates by Amnesty International and Col. Gatot Purwanto (the former Indonesian intelligence chief in East Timor), roughly 200,000 East Timorese – a third of the original population – have been killed as a result of the Indonesian army's occupation.
The East Timor weapons ban is the latest in a series of expanding restrictions imposed by the U.S. Congress on the sale of arms to Indonesia. Public and Congressional pressure blocked a transfer of F-5 fighters in 1993, and under similar pressure, in 1994 the State Department instituted a ban on the sale of small arms and crowd control equipment to Indonesia. The ban has since been expanded to include helicopter-mounted weapons and armored personnel carriers.
As a result of such pressure, Suharto has apparently agreed to enter talks on Timor this month, to be held informally under the auspices of South African President Nelson Mandela.
The Timor legislation (Section 571 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act of 1998, H.R. 2159) reads in full: "In any agreement for the sale, transfer, or licensing of any lethal equipment or helicopter for Indonesia entered into by the United States pursuant to the authority of this Act or any other Act, the agreement shall state that the United States expects that the items will not be used in East Timor: Provided, that nothing in this section shall be construed to limit Indonesia's inherent right to legitimate self-defense as recognized under the United Nations Charter and international law."
"The key phrase 'the United States expects that the items will not be used in East Timor' means that the U.S. regards Indonesia as obligated to refrain from using the weapons in East Timor," said Roger Clark, Professor of International Law at Rutgers Law School, Camden, NJ. Professor Clark, a legal advisor to ETAN, is widely viewed as the leading international scholar on the legal status of East Timor.
After the December 1975 invasion of East Timor, the State Department's legal office said that the use of U.S. arms weapons during the invasion violated the agreement governing weapons sales to Jakarta signed in August 1950. The Mutual Defense Agreement Between the United States of America and Indonesia on Equipment, Materials and Services allows the use of the weapons "solely for legitimate national self-defense" as defined by the U.N. Charter.