Companion to East Timor - The 1982 General Assembly Resolution

The 1982 General Assembly Resolution

In November 1982, a month after Suharto's visit to the US, the question of East Timor came up once again at the UN General Assembly. It was an important moment for the East Timor cause, with Indonesia making a determined effort to win. It had almost won the year before, with 54 states voting in favour of East Timor's right to self-determination, 42 against and 46 abstaining. Fretilin had never been given observer status at the UN, unlike Palestine and the South African liberation organisations ANC and PAC. Gough Whitlam appeared before the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation, saying that 'It is high time that the question of East Timor was voted off the United Nations agenda and ceased to preoccupy and distract the nations of South-east Asia and the Pacific.'

Whitlam was confronted by a well-organised opposition in the Committee room. First, he was questioned about his claim that his visit had occurred under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. A letter from the ICRC's Director of Operational Affairs was produced, stating that Whitlam's visit had been organised 'without having made any prior contact with our institution.' Next, he was subjected to withering criticism by several members of the Committee, one of whom said that Whitlam had 'knocked on the wrong door' by coming to a decolonisation committee to argue in favour of colonialism. Whitlam came under fire from Gordon McIntosh, an Australian Labor Party Senator from Western Australia, who had also flown to New York to testify before the Committee. McIntosh produced a letter in support of East Timor's right to self-determination, signed by an overwhelming majority of ALP parliamentarians. He played a tape of murdered Australian journalist Greg Shackleton. Seeing the damage being done to the diplomatic effort, the Australian government stepped in. A member of Australia's UN delegation threatened to cut off aid to Vanuatu because of that country's forthright support for East Timor on the Decolonisation Committee. When some of the activists threatened to make this threat public, the delegation tried to pass off the threat as a joke.

Portugal made a concerted effort at the General Assembly. Its National Assembly had created a Special Committee for the Accompaniment of the Situation in East Timor. President Ramalho Eanes appointed a team of diplomats to muster support around the world. Prime Minister Pinto Balsemao made East Timor the centerpiece of his speech at the UN General Assembly. East Timor barely survived the vote: 50 states voted in favour, 46 against, and 50 abstained. The issue was taken off the General Assembly's agenda and referred to the 'good offices' of the UN Secretary-General, who was required to consult 'all parties directly concerned.' From the time of the 1982 UN vote until the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, international solidarity kept the East Timor issue alive.