Revisiting the UN Security Council-Authorized Use of Force in East Timor 1999
On 15 September 1999, the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of force in East Timor. Through the adoption of Resolution 1264/1999, the Council deemed it necessary to establish a multinational force to protect the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) and end human rights abuses in the region (Security Council, 1999a). Soon after, the Australian-led International Force, East Timor (INTERFET) was deployed to the ground on 20 September 1999, authorized to use all means necessary since the condition in East Timor was considered as a threat to global peace and security (Security Council, 1999a; Robinson, 2003).
Generally, under Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter, the threat or use of force is prohibited. The article implies that the threat or use of force is contrary to the principle of territorial integrity of States and has the potential to defeat the purposes of the United Nations, inter alia, maintaining international peace and security (United Nations, 1945).
The Charter takes a step further to ensure that States avoid the threat or use of force in Chapter VI. The Chapter regulates the peaceful settlement of international disputes that includes negotiation, inquiry, and judicial settlement, among others (United Nations, 1945; Pellet, 2013). However, the provisions do not, by any means, indicate the total prohibition of the threat or use of force.
As evident in Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council has the authority to use both non-military and military forces and call upon States to apply such measures. Article 41 allows the Security Council to impose economic sanctions, interference on means of communications, and severance of diplomatic relations shall there exists any threat or breach to peace (United Nations, 1945; Nico, 2015). If and when such measures are deemed inadequate, the Security Council can recourse to Article 42, which allows the use of military force by air, sea, or land forces (United Nations, 1945). Nevertheless, such an act can only be taken when the situation regards it necessary (Christodoulidiou & Chainoglou, 2015).
Problematizing the Necessity Criteria under the Collective Security Paradigm
The Security Council’s power to determine when and where it is necessary to use force is imbued by the collective security doctrine. This doctrine derives from the rejection of the idea that international law lacks enforcement capacity due to its inability to give concrete sanctions (D’Aspremont, 2015). Proponents of this doctrine argue that there are coercive elements within international law, especially since the United Nations Charter has provisions on the use of force (D’Aspremont, 2015). The provisions give the Security Council the authority to trigger sanction mechanisms, often with contributions from the Member States, when a condition demands it to do so (D’Aspremont, 2015).
Unfortunately, the implementation of the collective security paradigm was not performed under a strict necessity test. In practice, such stringent criteria are only applied to the use of force in self-defense scenarios (Corten, 2015). The use of force authorized by the Security Council, on the other hand, has no exact, leave alone rigid, regime of necessity examination (Corten, 2015). It is up to the assumption and assessment of the Security Council to decide when it is necessary to use force and in what means (Corten, 2015). Therefore, the Security Council usually activates the clause under the vague interpretation of protecting the United Nations’ purposes.
Atrocities in East Timor and the Necessity Rationale for the Use of Force: Was It Adequate?
Prior to the adoption of Resolution 1264/1999, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1246/1999 on the establishment of the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) to organize and conduct a referendum in East Timor, allowing the Timorese to vote on whether they wanted to be a special autonomous region of Indonesia or aspire to be an independent State (Robinson, 2003). Rationae temporis, the mission starts from 11 June to 31 August 1999 (Security Council, 1999b). However, the deployment of UNAMET to East Timor was met with hostility by the military, although the government gave consent to such an intervention (Robinson, 2003; Jago, 2010).
False allegations were tossed against the UNAMET by pro-autonomy groups. Backed by the military, those groups questioned UNAMET’s neutrality in conducting its mandate by claiming that the UNAMET-led referendum only accommodated pro-independence voters (Robinson, 2003; Hirst, 2009). More tangible attacks to UNAMET soon followed suit. On 29 June 1999, a militia group attacked the UNAMET headquarters in the town of Maliana, Bobonaro district (Robinson, 2003). On the day of the referendum, 30 August 1999, a group of militiamen threatened UNAMET’s staff members working at the voting center in Boboe Leten, Ermera sub-district (Komnas Perempuan, 2003; Robinson, 2003). The threat soon transformed into an attack that killed two UNAMET staff members (Komnas Perempuan, 2003; Robinson, 2003).
The constant threat received by UNAMET was the primary justification for the adoption of Resolution 1264/1999 by the Security Council. The Resolution mentions explicitly that The Security Council is ‘concerned also at the attacks on the staff and premises of the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), on other officials and on international and national humanitarian personnel (Security Council, 1999a).’ Such a reason can arguably be said to fulfill the necessity claim to use force, especially when United Nations staff members are considered internationally protected persons. Under 1 (1) (b) of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons, including Diplomatic Agents 1973, internationally protected persons include ‘any official or other agent of an international organization of an intergovernmental character (Crawford, 2012).’ Lex posterior, the killing of two UNAMET staff members violates Indonesia’s customary obligations under the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel (United Nations, 1994; Security Council, 1999a).
Unfortunately, the Resolution implies that its adoption was based solely upon the condition when UNAMET was deployed in East Timor and shortly thereafter. It fails to address also the long history of abuses that happened in East Timor. A systemic and widespread human rights abuses took place in the region, at least from 1975, that affected at least 100,000 Timorese (ICTJ, 2011). Several experts argue that the use of force activated under the collective security doctrine for humanitarian intervention needs to consider the gravity of the situation (Rodley, 2015). A substantial level of oppression, such as the existence of genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, or war crimes, allows the Security Council to activate its use of force clause (Rodley, 2015). As the investigation conducted by the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission in September 1999 suggests, the condition in East Timor fulfills the crimes against humanity criteria (KontraS, 2002; ICTJ, 2011). As such, the Resolution should have also considered these facts and not focus solely on the attacks experienced by UNAMET to make it more justifiable for the INTERFET’s use of force.
The use of force in East Timor was necessary. Intimidations, false accusations, which led to the eventual murder of two UNAMET staff members, were adequate reasons for the Security Council to considered it necessary to use force in the region. However, the Resolution’s substance left out the fact that human rights abuses in East Timor happened not only during and after the UNAMET mission.
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