Companion to East Timor - Gareth Evans and the Responsibility to Protect East Timor

Gareth Evans and the Responsibility to Protect East Timor


Gareth Evans was a Senator in the Australian Parliament from 1978 to 1996. While in Opposition from 1978 to 1982, he was placed in charge of the Attorney-General's portfolio. When the Australian Labor Party came to power in 1983, Evans became Attorney-General.

In opposition, Labor had adopted a series of strong resolutions on the subject of East Timor. The 1979 Resolution declared: 'The ALP condemns, in the strongest terms, the Australian government's recognition of Indonesia's annexation of East Timor and undertakes, on becoming the Government of Australia, to reverse the decision.' 1 Three years later, Labor's official position was unchanged. The 1982 Resolution read, 'The ALP recognises the inalienable right of the East Timorese to self-determination and independence and rejects the Australian government's recognition of the Indonesian annexation of East Timor.' 2

Upon coming to power, however, the Labor government abandoned its previous stance. It sent a parliamentary delegation on a so-called 'fact-finding tour' of East Timor. On this tour, the East Timorese resistance tried to make contact with delegates on the road between Baucau and Los Palos but were rebuffed. They were later captured and killed by the Indonesian military. The report of the delegation concluded that the Indonesian government was acting in good faith in East Timor. The delegation found no evidence of human rights abuses and no real insecurity in East Timor 3 . While there was a dissenting statement by Senator Gordon McIntosh, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, the Official Report found no evidence of human rights abuses and no real insecurity in East Timor . The Official Report was no more than a public relations exercise to persuade the party's members that all was well. Accordingly, Labor reversed its policy. It continued negotiations with Indonesia on the seabed boundary in the Timor Gap.

Gareth Evans became Minister for Resources and Energy in December 1984, Minister for Transport and Communications in 1987, and Foreign Minister in September 1988. As Foreign Minister, he signed the Timor Gap Treaty with Indonesia's foreign minister, Ali Alatas, in December 1989. This treaty ensured that Australia and Indonesia would rob East Timor's oil, while the Indonesian army continued to occupy East Timor. While Gareth Evans was foreign minister, he did his best to provide diplomatic cover for the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. In 1990, he dismissed concerns about Indonesia's invasion and occupation of East Timor, saying that 'the world is a pretty unfair place, that it's littered over the course of the decades and the centuries with examples of acquisitions by force which have proved to be, for whatever reason, irreversible' 4.

Nine months before the 12th November 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, Evans had stated that East Timor's 'human rights situation has, in our judgment, conspicuously improved, particularly under the current military arrangements. 5'


When news of the massacre broke, Evans described the massacre as 'an aberration, not an act of state policy' 6 . The Indonesian government announced what it called a 'special commission of inquiry'. The "inquiry" conducted no investigation but merely used the year of the massacre (1991) to deliver a casualty number of 19 killed and 91 wounded. It said that a few junior soldiers were guilty of over-reaction but that responsibility for the massacre lay with the civilian marchers, who had provoked the military into firing on them. Gareth Evans said 'there were grounds for the international community to be "somewhat critical" of the relatively light sentences imposed on troops involved in the massacre, compared to long jail terms for demonstrators'. But there was 'no case to be "supremely critical".' 7

He stated:

"It's a matter of recognising that what happened in Dili, as appalling as it was, was not on any evidence a deliberate act of state policy. It was aberrant behaviour by a section of the military which has been responded to in a reasonable and credible way by the Indonesian government. Under those circumstances we believe that essentially punitive responses from the international community are not appropriate." 8

Senior Australian diplomats actively cooperated with the Indonesian authorities: the Australian ambassador to Jakarta Mr Philip Flood was informed soon after that Indonesian soldiers and intelligence agents had killed even more civilians around Dili after the massacre. The ambassador kept this information confidential, in line with the wishes of the Kopassus officer who conveyed it to him, Lieutenant-Colonel Prabowo Subianto 9 .

In January 1992, he ordered the removal of more than 100 wooden crosses symbolizing the victims of the Santa Cruz massacre from the lawn in front of the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra. These crosses had been placed there peacefully as a sign of mourning by East Timorese refugees, their supporters and representatives of Canberra's union movement 10 .

In March 1992, after talks with Portuguese Foreign Minister Joao de Deus Pinheiro, Evans said at a press conference that Australia saw 'the sovereignty issue as effectively closed, whether you like it or not, whereas Portugal does not… We do occasionally have to accept some harsh realities. The way forward is not to chase a Will of the Wisp, not to chase an aspiration that can never be satisfied.' 11

Eleven months after the Santa Cruz massacre, the US Congress cut off Washington's military training program (known as International Military Education and Training – IMET) for Indonesia. But Australia filled the void left by the US's decision, pursuing closer military-to-military ties with the Suharto regime. Much later, Evans was forced to concede that 'many of our earlier training efforts helped only to produce more professional human rights abusers.' 12 While Evans was foreign minister, however, Australia carried out more military exercises with Indonesia than with any other country.

Under Evans, the Australian government concealed the negotiation of the 1995 Australia-Indonesia Security Agreement from the parliament and the people. Evans justified the secrecy, saying that it was 'difficult to do things in a fishbowl'. He argued that the secrecy was necessary in order 'to have a sensible process of negotiation' so as 'not to be thrown off the rails by people getting very excited about things before it's appropriate.' 13

At the height of the crisis surrounding the resignation of President Suharto, Gareth Evans ventured his opinion that Suharto should 'stand down in favour of a military leader in order to end the civil and political crisis gripping the country'. 14,15 In a radio interview, Evans was asked for his 'thoughts on the current crisis – is the removal of the Soeharto family the only way forward?' He replied that 'Soeharto's time has come; the first family's time has come. … It's explosive, it's out of control. The only question now is whether a transition can be managed without too much more chaos and bloodshed, or whether it can be done reasonably smoothly'.

Dismissing the idea of Vice-President Habibie succeeding Suharto, Evans said he didn't think that:

"Habibie has the degree of support in the wider community, let alone anywhere else in the world, to make it a terribly credible option on any sustainable basis. The more likely option is that one of the key military people, either Wiranto or possibly Prabowo, will in fact take over – perhaps in the context of some more broadly based council. … ultimately I think the military does call the shots.

They do have a respect and a credibility and a role in Indonesian society which is very different from a country like ours, and so it's not quite as disconcerting a proposition for Indonesians to have the military running a transition towards a more democratic system. It's not quite as disconcerting as perhaps at first sight it appears to Australians.

And there are some of the more senior military people who do have a reputation as moderate and capable of managing such a transition: we can only keep our fingers crossed and hope that will be the case." 16



When Laurie Brereton, Labor's foreign affairs spokesman after the 1996 federal election (Labor was out of office) amended the party's foreign policy such that it formally committed the party to supporting East Timorese self-determination, Gareth Evans responded very negatively. He objected to the passage that dealt with East Timor, which read as follows:

"Labor also reaffirms its grave concern about continuing reports of human rights abuses in East Timor. Labor strongly urges the initiation of genuine dialogue between the Indonesian Government and the people of East Timor to resolve the fundamental issues which underlie the conflict. A Labor Government will lend every encouragement to international efforts to peacefully resolve the East Timor conflict. It is Labor's considered view that no lasting solution to the conflict in East Timor is likely in the absence of a process of negotiation through which the people of East Timor can exercise their right of self-determination."

Evans tried to amend much of this. Among other things, he cancelled the word 'international' and the whole of the final sentence. Evans' intervention was hardly surprising – after years of support for Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor, it was obvious that international interest was unwelcome, as was any meaningful commitment to an act of self-determination. According to Brereton, they had 'a very robust phone conversation', during the course of which Evans was made to understand that Brereton would not be dissuaded. Brereton later remarked that 'the review process was not easy, especially given that the overall policy review was, as we know, overseen by the then deputy leader [Evans] who had, of course, a considerable investment in Labor's past policy on East Timor. I might say that Gareth's handwritten deletion of … all [my] key references given to self-determination – that hand-written note remains filed in my office because it's a little piece of the history of the development of Labor policy'. 17

Brereton's remarks were made at the Labor Club in Sydney. They carried a hint of menace – should Evans dispute the historical record, Brereton possessed a rebuttal in Evans' own handwriting. 18 Read it here.

Gareth Evans subsequently rejected calls that his government had anything to apologise for, saying that 'the notion that we had anything to answer for morally or otherwise over the way we handled the Indonesia-East Timor relationship, I absolutely reject.' 19


1 ALP, National Conference Resolution, Mitchell Library, Sydney, 1979.

2 ALP, National Conference Resolution, Mitchell Library, Sydney, 1982.

3 Official Report of the Australian Parliamentary Delegation to East Timor, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1983.

4 Question (Mark Aarons): What do you say, Senator Evans, to those who would point to Australia's international obligations that we shouldn't be recognising territory acquired by anyone by force? Answer (Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans): Well, we don't accept that there's any international legal obligation not to recognise acquisitions of that kind. And, of course, that's a matter that may well prove to be an issue if the question of the Timor Gap Treaty is ever litigated in an international court. And I want to make it clear that we don't recognise, as I say, any such legal obligation. What I can say is simply that the world is a pretty unfair place, that it's littered over the course of the decades and the centuries with examples of acquisitions by force which have proved to be, for whatever reason, irreversible. (Background Briefing, 28, 29, 30 October 1990, ABC Radio National.)

5 'The human rights situation has, in our judgment, conspicuously improved, particularly under the current military arrangements.' – Gareth Evans, Bali, 9 February 1991. Cited by Mark Baker, A Blind Policy's Dead End In Dili, The Age, 15 November 1991. Also see Indonesia News 1991, Volume 10, Number 2.

6 Mark Aarons and Robert Domm, East Timor: A Western-made Tragedy, Left Book Club, Sydney, 1992.

7 Agence France-Presse, Australia critical of U.S. decision to penalise Indonesia, 26 June 1992.

8 Agence France-Presse, Australia critical of U.S. decision to penalise Indonesia, 26 June 1992.

9 Hamish McDonald, Exposed: The slaughter that Evans denied, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November 1998.

10 Agence France-Presse, Picket and crosses to be moved from Indonesian embassy, 16 January 1992.

11 Robert Powell, Portugal, Australia clash on East Timor, Reuters, 17 March 1992.

12 Gareth Evans, Indonesia's Military Culture Has to Be Reformed, International Herald Tribune, 24 July 2001.

13 The Age, 18 December 1995.

14 AAP, Suharto should stand down for military – Evans, 15 May 1998.

15 AAP, Suharto likely to be succeeded by military leader – Evans, 15 May 1998.

16 P. Clark, Interview on Radio 2BL Sydney with Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Treasurer, Gareth Evans, 15 May 1998

17 Deborah Snow 17 July 1999, Laurie's last stand, Sydney Morning Herald.

18 Deborah Snow 17 July 1999, Laurie's last stand, Sydney Morning Herald.

19 Paul Daley, Man for a Crisis, The Age, 5 March 2001.