The left and UN military intervention in East Timor

By Terry Townsend

January-April 2000 -- The streets of what is left of Dili, the capital of East Timor, were packed on October 31, 1999, as tens of thousands of people joined a procession led by Catholic Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. Ostensibly to mark the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the procession was the culmination of two tumultuous months that brought the brutal 24-year-long Indonesian occupation and annexation of East Timor to an end.

Despite its solemn demeanour and religious appearance, this was no ordinary Sunday manifestation. It was a mass celebration, and symbolic acceptance, of the Indonesian military's defeat in East Timor. Just hours earlier, the last 1000 or so Indonesian troops, escorted by tanks, had retreated down the same road to board ships bound for home. The East Timorese people's ordeal that began with the Indonesian invasion in 1975 was at an end.

The events that ushered in the arrival of an Australian-led, United Nations "multinational peacekeeping force" on September 20, 1999, and the subsequent withdrawal of Indonesia's last remaining troops six weeks later unfolded rapidly. It is worth summarising the course of events.

In the aftermath of the downfall of Indonesian dictator Suharto in May 1998, following a mass pro-democracy uprising, the military-dominated government was weakened. To relieve some of the pressure, new President B.J. Habibie in June and August of that year offered East Timor "expanded" autonomy.

Large, militant mobilisations in East Timor from June to November demanded a referendum on independence. Several protests in Dili during this period, involving tens of thousands of people, had this as a central demand, along with the immediate release of resistance leader Xanana Gusmao and the withdrawal of the Indonesian military.

The military, which had been discredited domestically and internationally, began slowly to reassert itself. In East Timor, this involved increasing the number of troops (despite official claims that troop numbers were being reduced) and the establishment of militia terror gangs.

On January 27, Habibie announced that he would allow the East Timorese to vote in a referendum for autonomy or independence. Jakarta, urged on by the Australian government, hoped that a combination of persuasion and repression could convince enough of the people of East Timor to vote to accept autonomy.

The formation of the United Nations Mission to East Timor (UNAMET) followed the May 5 agreement between Indonesia and Portugal, brokered by the UN, which set a timetable for a referendum. However, the agreement left the Indonesian military (TNI) in charge of "security" in East Timor before and during the referendum.

UNAMET, despite being understaffed and unarmed, assured the East Timorese that it would ensure that Indonesia would respect the result. The East Timorese took UNAMET at its word and confidently campaigned. Green Left Weekly's correspondent in East Timor, Sam King, reported that 50,000 pro-independence supporters mobilised in Dili (the town's population is around 80,000) on August 25.

The rally lasted for five hours, circling the city. Everywhere, people lined the streets singing and yelling "Viva Timor leste!". The vast majority of people were prepared to campaign for independence in front of the Indonesian military and militias. Political organising centres poskos sprang up everywhere. Student organisations and the Socialist Party of Timor (PST) went door to door to convince people that they should vote for independence.

Many students were killed [by the pro-Jakarta militia], but poskos were set up even in those towns experiencing the worst violence, such as Maliana, Suai and others in the west. In Dili, public offices were opened by Fretilin, the PST, the Student Solidarity Council, and the student groups Renetil and Impettu. The National Council of Timorese Resistance had two offices.

The largest anti-independence rally, on July 26, was 2000-strong. Most participants were paid, fed or forced to be there.

Three days before the August 31 referendum, the pro-Jakarta terror gangs went on a rampage in Dili. TNI did not actively participate, but defended the militias from counter-attack by pro-independence forces. Eleven people were killed, a relatively low death toll which indicated the weakness of the militias when they operated without direct TNI support.

There were streets in Dili that militias were afraid to enter. Communities formed neighbourhood defence units armed with sticks, spears, old machetes and bows and arrows. Piles of rocks were placed along the sides of roads, ready for throwing.

With the announcement on September 4 that 78.5% of East Timorese had voted for independence, all hell broke loose. The TNI openly joined forces with, and directed, the militias. Three hours after the announcement, guns were firing continuously in Dili. Thousands of people fled into the mountains or were taken by TNI troops and deported. By September 5, there were dozens of refugee locations around Dili, containing from a few hundred up to a few thousand people each. Most available spaces were used: the International Red Cross compound, church grounds, Bishop Belo's residence, schools and abandoned government offices. Only a small minority remained in their houses.

On September 6, all refugee locations were attacked. A single armed group entered the Red Cross compound wearing military and militia clothing. Under TNI command, they fired near the refugees and told them that they would kill them. They ordered everybody to leave the compound. The militia thugs separated the refugees into two groups: pro-independence and others. The fate of many of the pro-independence supporters is still unknown. The others were marched to the port, where they were deported to Indonesia.

Thus began almost two weeks of a well-planned and systematic campaign of terror against independence supporters. This campaign, ordered by Indonesian defence minister General Wiranto, was aimed at ensuring continued Indonesian military control of East Timor despite the result of the UN-organised ballot and Jakarta's pledge to respect the result. The terror campaign included the murder of independence activists and church people, the wholesale burning of houses, schools, hospitals, churches and economic infrastructure throughout the country and the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese civilians. By September 9, according to Australian defence minister John Moore, "150,000 to 200,000 people [had] been forcibly moved out of East Timor and dispersed either to West Timor or other parts of Indonesia".

Yet despite overwhelming evidence that this terror campaign had been directed by the Indonesian military high command, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and the leaders of other Western powers repeatedly sought to absolve the Indonesian military of any direct role.

'There will be no Timor to save'

On September 8, Joao Carrascalao, head of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) in Australia, repeated calls by the leaders of the East Timorese liberation movement for international action. His appeal for immediate intervention by the "international community" stated:

The Field Commander of Falintil, Taun Matan Ruak, called today from his base in the mountains of East Timor. He made an impassioned plea for help and detailed further atrocities committed by the Indonesian military machine as it continues its genocide and ethnic cleansing program.

Taun Matan Ruak said: "The international community must intervene urgently in East Timor or tomorrow there will be no Timor to save. I call on Timorese everywhere to mobilise to press in every way they can for international intervention."

Taun Matan Ruak made a special appeal to Australia: "Our thanks to you for what you are doing. But we need more help. Do not forget, Australia, that we were there to help when Australia needed us, dying in these very mountains to save Australian troops [during World War II]."

On the situation in Dili, he said: "It is chaotic. People are fleeing to the mountains, being arrested, killed and forced on to trucks to go to West Timor. Some East Timorese in the police force have been murdered, some have fled to the mountains to join us. Indonesia is disarming Battalion 744 (an East Timorese territorial battalion); the Indonesians do not trust them."

On the situation in the districts, Taun Matan Ruak said that in Suai, "The Indonesians attacked and destroyed the church at Suai yesterday. Of 2000 people taking refuge there, they killed 100 to 200, including two priests and two nuns."

In Ermera, "They attacked the church. All the priests and nuns and everyone sheltering there fled to a hiding place and are safe at present. Commander Ular [the local Falintil commander] says they are seeking safety in the mountains."

In Manatuto, "The church was attacked. Father Domingos and the people sheltering there escaped to the mountains. Father Eduardo and another group are also on their way into the mountains."

In Laleia, Ossu and Venilale: "Some residents and some local armed people got away from the military. We are trying to find them to stop them sacrificing themselves in a hopeless local fight back. That is going to be difficult; they are very determined people."

On the situation in the mountains, Taun Matan Ruak reported: "There are tens of thousands of refugees in the mountains now; they are in a terrible situation. They are hungry, thirsty, sick and in abject misery. The roads are blocked, food is very short already. We are hungry, but we are doing everything we can to save our people."

Hitler would be envious just 96 hours after the United Nations declared that 78.5% of East Timorese had voted for freedom from Indonesian oppression, the fascist Indonesian military machine and its civil government collaborators like foreign minister Ali Alatas are well on their way to their target of exterminating 344,580 East Timorese.

They will also kill tens of thousands more innocent children.

These people will die shot, hacked, tortured, raped and starved to death unless the free, democratic nations of the world confront Indonesia today, in every international forum and on the ground in East Timor.

The figure of 344,580 is the number of people who voted for independence in the UN ballot, trusting in the assurances of sincere workers for the United Nations and from governments, including Australia and Portugal, that they could vote in safety and live to enjoy freedom afterwards …

In the 1970s, 200,000 East Timorese died when the Indonesian military dictatorship launched an all-out campaign against the independence movement. That kept the lid on the movement for two decades.

There can be no doubt that this time their aim is more ambitious to wipe out the East Timorese independence movement forever. That means wiping out every East Timorese who voted for independence.

We reiterate Taun Matan Ruak's appeal to all nations please help now. If you don't, there will be no East Timor tomorrow.

In response to the escalating pogrom directed against pro-independence East Timorese, and to the calls of the East Timorese liberation movement, the national executive of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) on September 6 issued a statement entitled "UN/Australia must act now to stop bloodbath!":

The Democratic Socialist Party calls on all supporters of democracy to mobilise to demand that the Australian government insist that the United Nations authorise the immediate dispatch of Australian troops to East Timor.

The task of these troops must be to assist the East Timorese resistance forces to stop the current bloodbath being organised by the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) and police (Polri). This can only be achieved through the disarming of the pro-Jakarta terror gangs. In addition, these troops must supervise the rapid withdrawal of all Indonesian military and police personnel from East Timor so as to enable the East Timorese to take full control of their nation's affairs.

All East Timorese national liberation forces have called for immediate UN-authorised military intervention in East Timor to stop the TNI/Polri-organised bloodbath.

If the United Nations Security Council continues to argue that an international military force cannot be sent to East Timor without the Indonesian government's agreement, then the Australian government should act unilaterally and send its armed forces into East Timor to end the TNI/Polri-organised terror campaign.

The argument that the UN cannot authorise the sending of an armed security force to East Timor without the Indonesian government's approval is utterly hypocritical since the UN has never recognised Indonesia's claim of sovereignty over East Timor. In the August 30 ballot, the overwhelming majority of the East Timorese nation, in the face of a massive campaign of intimidation by TNI/Polri-directed terror gangs ("pro-integration militias"), clearly expressed their desire for independence from the Indonesian state.

Prime Minister Howard and Foreign Minister Downer also make the argument that Australian military forces cannot be sent to help the East Timorese people halt the TNI/Polri's campaign of terror and mass murder without Jakarta's (that is, without the Indonesian military's) prior agreement. This stance is simply the continuation of the policy that Australian governments, both Labor and Liberal, have had for 24 years of sacrificing the democratic rights of the East Timorese people to collaboration with the Indonesian military. That is why they refuse to break off Australia's ties with the Indonesian military (including immediately ending the training of TNI officers).

The aim of this policy is to maintain a "secure environment" for Australian big business in both Indonesia and East Timor. Howard and Downer know that maintaining Indonesia as a "secure environment" for big business requires maintaining the TNI/Polri's dictatorial control over Indonesia's improvised population. They are therefore unwilling to take any action that will politically weaken the Indonesian military, even if this means that tens of thousands of East Timorese are murdered by the TNI/Polri and its East Timorese puppet gangs.

Stop the bloodbath in East Timor! Disarm the pro-Jakarta terror gangs! Indonesian troops/police out now! UN/Australian troops into East Timor now! Break all military ties with Indonesia! Recognise the independence of East Timor!

Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET), a major organisation in the Australian solidarity movement in which DSP members play a leading role, issued a similar call. ASIET was central in pulling together broad coalitions around Australia to organise mass protests demanding that the Australian government take action to end the massacres.

In response to the Indonesian regime's carefully orchestrated military and militia atrocities, Australian working people's sympathy with the Timorese people's aspirations and anger at the violence directed against them were displayed in the streets. The anger was directed at the Liberal-National Coalition federal government's refusal to take action to force the Indonesian regime to accept the result and withdraw Indonesian troops from East Timor. A second betrayal of the East Timorese people on the scale of that of the Whitlam Labor and Fraser Coalition governments in 1975 would not be tolerated by Australian working people.

Not since the Vietnam War had such an explosion of mass dissent against Australian foreign policy taken place. The speed of its development was unprecedented. At the beginning of the week after the ballot result was announced, the Australian government was at pains to stress that it still had confidence in the Indonesian government to restore order in East Timor.

In Sydney on September 6, a hastily organised demonstration outside Indonesia's Garuda airlines called by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union drew 200 people. The next day 300 East Timorese and their supporters rallied outside the UN Information Office and were joined by 2000 building workers. On September 10, Resistance the socialist youth group in solidarity with the DSP called a national high school student walkout, and 10,000 high school and university students were mobilised around the country.

More than 30,000 people rallied in Melbourne on September 10 at a protest called by the Victorian Trades Hall Council, the East Timorese community and solidarity groups. On September 11 in Sydney, a rally initiated by ASIET attracted more than 30,000 people. Thousands rallied in other cities, including Darwin, Brisbane, Parramatta, Canberra, Adelaide, Byron Bay, Lismore, Wollongong, Geelong, Rockhampton, Mackay, Newcastle, Perth and Hobart.

Trade unions placed bans on Indonesian shipping, the refining of Indonesian crude oil, the servicing and flights of Garuda aircraft, and postal and telephone services to the Indonesian embassy.

According to a Herald-AC Nielsen poll taken before the agreement to send a UN force into East Timor (published in the September 14 Sydney Morning Herald), nearly three-quarters of Australians supported such a force.

All the rallies and trade union actions made very clear demands on the Australian government: push for immediate UN armed intervention, pressure Indonesia to withdraw its troops from East Timor, cut all military ties and recognise East Timor's status as a sovereign, independent country.

Similar demonstrations took place all over the world. In Portugal, huge demonstrations, including some 100,000 people in Lisbon, took place. International trade union federations imposed industrial bans on Indonesian trade and interests. The growing international mobilisations and the pressure of international public opinion forced the most powerful imperialist governments especially the United States to distance themselves from the Indonesian regime, which they had loyally supported since its murderous emergence in 1965.

However, the mass actions in Australia were decisive because successive governments here, more than any other in the world, had most openly pursued close ties with the Indonesian dictatorship. It was widely acknowledged that the core of any UN force able to mobilise rapidly enough to stop the killing would have to come from Australia.

With the street protests increasing dramatically in size and breadth, the Australian government was forced to act. It could no longer appease public outrage with lame excuses for delaying military intervention in support of the East Timorese. The Indonesian regime's decision to allow a UN intervention and to begin withdrawing its 20,000 troops on September 17 ahead of its arrival were in large part due to the pressure Canberra was forced by the Australian people to exert on Jakarta.

The response of the left

The call by the DSP for the solidarity movement to mobilise to back the East Timorese liberation movement's call for an immediate armed UN intervention to stop the massacres, enforce the results of the referendum, disarm the terror gangs and facilitate the withdrawal of Indonesian troops created controversy in some sections of the revolutionary left.

While most public criticism was directed at the DSP's stand, the Australian party was far from alone in its call for intervention. Significantly, revolutionary parties based in those countries most directly involved in the East Timor conflict, and in Western countries whose governments have the closest political and economic links with Indonesia and as a result significant solidarity movements with East Timor and Indonesia took similar stances.

In East Timor itself, as well as the CNRT, the Socialist Party of Timor called for a UN force. In Indonesia, the People's Democratic Party (PRD) the leading party of the radical wing of the democracy movement and its only proponent of the East Timorese people's right to national self-determination also supported intervention.

In Portugal, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (PSR affiliated to the Fourth International) played a major role in the mass mobilisations demanding international action. The Communist Party of Portugal took a similar stand. Other significant far-left parties that took positions similar to the DSP include the French Revolutionary Communist League (LCR an affiliate of the FI), the US socialist group Solidarity, the Socialist Party of Labour of the Philippines (SPP), the FI sections in the Spanish state, the Netherlands and Belgium, and the South African Communist Party.

While the International Executive Committee of the FI did not specifically call for mass pressure for a UN force (its statement was issued on September 27, after the arrival of the force), it seems clear that the FI leadership broadly supports a position similar to that of its Portuguese and French affiliates.

Revolutionary Cuba's foreign minister, Philipe Pirez Roque, issued a statement that described the need for a UN force in East Timor as "something exceptional". Cuba had opposed the previous "multilateral" military interventions against Yugoslavia and Iraq. Cuba offered to send doctors to East Timor.


The DSP's position was publicly criticised by the London-based Committee for a Workers International (CWI, whose leading party is the Socialist Party, formerly Militant Labour, in Britain), by parties associated with the British Socialist Workers Party (known as the International Socialists in most countries where they exist), the Maoist US Workers World Party, by Ted Grant of the British Socialist Appeal (once the leading figure in Militant Labour prior to a split in the organisation) and by several other far-left parties. Many individual contributors to various open internet discussion groups also took the DSP to task.

Most of the critics of the DSP position put forward several common arguments.

While most agreed that urgent and immediate action was needed to halt the escalating massacres and force the withdrawal of Indonesian troops allowing the East Timorese their formal right to national self-determination and independence it was argued that alternatives to armed UN intervention were available that would have just as quickly ended the slaughter without breaching socialist "principles".

The argument that most seriously called into question the DSP and other far-left parties' political judgment was the view that for socialists to have built a movement that sought to force imperialist governments to intervene in East Timor "sowed illusions" in capitalist states' and imperialism's "humanitarian" motives, and especially illusions in the UN, a "thoroughly" imperialist institution which US imperialism uses as a fig leaf for military interventions throughout the world.

In effect, it was claimed, the DSP, other far-left parties and the solidarity movement activists influenced by them played into imperialism's hands, strengthening it and its institutions and improving its ability to intervene militarily in the future under the guise of "humanitarian" missions.

A related argument put by most critics was that is it is not permissible to demand that capitalist governments use military force or to give critical support to military operations under the banner of the UN.

Were there alternatives?

Were there alternatives to UN intervention? The Indonesian military and its proxy death squads (militias) were systematically exterminating the pro-independence East Timorese. The existence of the Timorese liberation movement was at stake. The urgency of the situation was that a key component of the revolutionary movement in the region was in danger of immediate physical annihilation that could have been achieved in the space of weeks. With this, the Indonesian regime's goal of setting back the Timorese independence movement for another 25 years would have been achieved.

Certainly, it was the unanimous view of the Timorese liberation movement within East Timor and outside the country that there was no other realistic alternative. It was also the view of the main left organisations in Indonesia, Australia and Portugal that supported the Timorese movement's call.

Opponents of the call for UN troops proposed that the left and solidarity movement should, counterposed to the demand for immediate UN intervention, demand that governments cut all military aid and arms sales to Jakarta, end diplomatic ties, impose economic and trade sanctions and freeze International Monetary Fund loans. It was argued that trade union bans alone could bring an end to the carnage.

Such demands in isolation could not have immediately stopped the slaughter. The experience of the anti-apartheid struggle showed that sanctions and trade union bans alone cannot force imperialist-backed regimes to change course in the short term.

Restricting the movement's demands to these in this situation would have given the Indonesian military the time it needed to finish its dirty work. In the dire emergency the East Timorese movement faced, only an armed force could prevent the utter obliteration of the liberation movement.

Some hardened sectarian "revolutionaries" concluded, "Such is life". The demise of the Timorese movement was the unfortunate cost that had to be paid to maintain the principle of opposing UN military intervention in all situations. The DSP, PRD, PSR, LCR, Solidarity, the solidarity movement and tens of thousands of working people in Australia and Portugal did not agree.

The fact that the many trade union bans that were imposed were directly aimed at forcing the Australian government to support and contribute to a UN intervention force proves that those who counterposed union bans to intervention most prominently the International Socialist current, the CWI and Socialist Appeal were in reality proposing to do nothing to stop the slaughter.

In the situation that was unfolding, whatever the intentions of those who argued this, not to call for an immediate UN intervention was to accept the slaughter as a fait accompli. To campaign against the force was to be complicit with imperialism's desire to stand back and allow the slaughter to take its course.

Abstract calls for general strikes and economic sanctions (and even international workers' brigades!) counterposed to immediate intervention were at best a form of abstention and at worst a diversion that allowed Western governments to wriggle off the hook.

Of course, trade union action was advocated and championed by those parties that backed the liberation movement's call for UN intervention. But it was understood that the positive political impact of such actions in each country publicising the issue, politicising and mobilising workers to take action could not replace calls on their own governments to take real action that could immediately stop the Indonesian regime's murderous thugs in their tracks.

It is interesting to note that the groups that were the loudest in opposing the call for UN intervention in the comfort of exclusively left forums the International Socialists, the CWI, Socialist Appeal refused to be true to their positions and campaign in public for "UN out of Timor". They knew that, in the circumstances, it was a call for the slaughter to resume and would have been interpreted as such by the vast majority of people who mobilised to end the massacres.

Sowing illusions in imperialism?

The most serious charge made against the DSP and the other far-left parties was that the campaign to force Western capitalist governments to intervene in East Timor with a UN military force "sowed illusions" in imperialism and strengthened its ability to intervene against the interests of workers and peasants throughout the world in the guise of "humanitarian" motives.

In fact, Canberra, Washington and London's refusal to put a stop to the slaughter was a continuation of imperialism's 35-year support for the murderous Indonesian regime. To demand that Western governments act immediately to halt it, to live up to their "humanitarian" rhetoric, did not sow illusions in imperialism but exposed their hypocrisy and the fact that imperialism was willing to allow the East Timorese liberation movement to be crushed.

The refusal and reluctance of the West to act did more to make the Australian people question their illusions in the "benign and benevolent" Australian foreign policy than the approximately 2 million issues of Green Left Weekly sold by DSP members since 1991.

Working people are not stupid. They saw that Australian foreign policy had always backed Indonesia, that the Australian government funds and trains the Indonesian army, that Australian governments Labor and conservative had recognised Indonesia's invasion and annexation of East Timor. They correctly concluded that this was the reason the Australian government sat on its hands in the face of the demand of the liberation movement for UN intervention as the killing continued.

It was this realisation of the government's vicious betrayal of the Timorese people that fuelled the rapid growth in the mobilisations around Australia.

(Comrades from the PSR also report that in Portugal "the main demand of the masses, since the beginning, was respect for the results of the referendum and a UN intervention in East Timor, a demand we have supported as the only immediate way of stopping the massacres … These demonstrations [the biggest since the Portuguese revolution in 1975] were also accompanied by a very visible anti-American feeling. Most people were able to compare the [US] position on Kosovo and the [US] position on East Timor, concluding, at least, that there was duplicity.")

The DSP, unfortunately, is not strong enough to "sow" illusions in imperialism among the Australian people the illusions already exist! The question for socialists was how best to undermine those illusions.

The DSP and the other far-left parties in their countries flailed their governments for their refusal to come to the aid of the persecuted East Timorese and in their newspapers and other propaganda exposed the real motives and record of Australian and Western imperialism in relation to East Timor and Indonesia.

The West's preferred course of action following the referendum in East Timor was to stand back and allow the Indonesian regime, its military and its death squads to slaughter the pro-independence people and leaders so as to make independence impossible, or at least to weaken or destroy the independence movement as much as possible before independence became inevitable.

Canberra and Washington were fully aware that this scenario would unfold long before the referendum (see the Green Left Weekly article at <>). Jakarta was given the nod to proceed.

After the announcement of the referendum result on September 4, Howard continued to talk in general terms of supporting a peacekeeping force but continued to hide behind the excuse that it needed the permission of Indonesia ignoring the fact that the UN did not recognise East Timor as part of Indonesia and that the East Timorese had just overwhelmingly voted to be independent.

Why was he finally forced to send the force? In the space of a week or so, a mass movement developed in Australia that frightened Canberra and forced it to act. Canberra did not want to intervene with a peacekeeping force but was forced to by popular opinion. It was a defeat for the Australian government's foreign policy.

DSP National Executive member Doug Lorimer explained in Green Left Weekly:

For 24 years, Australian governments have supported the Indonesian military occupation of East Timor and opposed the East Timorese nation's struggle for independence. They have done this because, as Downer so bluntly put it recently, "in geopolitical terms" (i.e., in terms of the interests of Australian finance capital) they considered that an independent East Timor would be an "inconvenience".

That is, they have considered that the exploitation of the working people of the Indonesian archipelago by Australian finance capital is best served by a political arrangement in which all of these people, regardless of their wishes, are placed under the rule of a single state power a power exercised by the Indonesian generals.

That is why the Australian imperialist state supported the Indonesian army's 1975 invasion of East Timor, and why it gave legal recognition to Jakarta's annexation of East Timor in 1976.

However, the inability of the Indonesian army to extinguish completely the struggle of the East Timorese for independence has been a running political sore in Canberra's relations with Jakarta. This is because the big majority of Australian working people have sympathised with the East Timorese people's desire for national self-determination.

Last December, Howard proposed to Indonesian President B.J. Habibie a "solution" to this problem: Indonesia should agree to a UN-organised referendum in which the East Timorese people would vote on whether to remain under Jakarta's rule.

Howard evidently expected that Jakarta would be able to "persuade" the East Timorese to vote for integration with Indonesia. Right up to the August 30 ballot, the Howard government expressed its opposition to a vote for independence.

In July of this year, the Indonesian military, which has no intention of relinquishing its control over East Timor, drew up a plan to "persuade" East Timorese voters to vote against independence. It funded, organised and armed pro-integration "militias" to coerce voters to reject independence.

If this didn't work, then the plan called for the launching a genocidal scorched-earth campaign to destroy East Timor, deport the majority of its people and resettle East Timor with people from other parts of Indonesia. On September 4, this campaign was put into effect.

This was an excruciating political problem for the Howard government: the overwhelming majority of Australians believe that the Australian government should act to ensure that Jakarta respects the expressed will of the East Timorese for national independence. But the Howard government does not want to take measures that will undermine its collaborative alliance with the Indonesian military.

To retain its political legitimacy in the eyes of Australian working people, the Howard government has to present itself as a defender of democracy in East Timor. At the same time, in serving the interests of its real masters, the Australian financial oligarchy, it must do nothing that would jeopardise the political power of the Indonesian generals.

That is why Howard had to appease public opinion in Australia by saying he was for Australian troops being sent into East Timor, while at the same time protecting the political power of the Indonesian army generals by insisting that this could happen only if the Indonesian government (i.e., the Indonesian generals) agree to let them in.

The solidarity movement's demand that Howard send Australian troops to East Timor to help the East Timorese resistance defeat the genocidal campaign, far from supporting the continuation of Australia's imperialist policy toward East Timor, was the sharpest and most concrete way, in the current conditions, of opposing this policy.

The immediate result of the decision to send the peacekeeping force was to put a stop to the slaughter of the vanguard of the Timorese liberation movement. This was the key gain, the importance of which cannot overestimated. It also led to the total withdrawal of Indonesian troops.

Secondly, the Australian mass movement set back Australian imperialism's key goal if only for a time of a strategic political and military alliance with the Indonesian regime and the power behind the throne, the Indonesian military.

It was a massive defeat for the Indonesian military. Gains for the democracy movement in Indonesia and the struggles in Aceh and West Papua have already been made in its wake.

East Timor will achieve formal independence. That too is a victory. Of course, Australian and Western imperialism have their own designs and will try to make the most of them. Certainly, an independent East Timor will be a neo-colony of imperialism, just as Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands are, but that would have been the case whether Indonesia peacefully gave up East Timor or it remained part of Indonesia.

Australian and US imperialism will attempt to make the most of the setback that has been forced upon them. That simply means that the solidarity movement has a huge job to do to ensure that the East Timorese people have as much political room to move as possible.

The mass movement in Australia that forced the government to intervene, against its will, was motivated by a sympathy for the East Timorese people and an overwhelming support for their right to independence. It can be, and will be, mobilised again if Howard, Clinton and the UN betray that.

Did the mobilisation of more than 100,000 people in Australia, in the space of a week, outraged at Canberra's 24-year policy, make it easier or harder for Howard and the UN to renege on independence for East Timor? Does it make it easier or harder for the solidarity movement to mobilise those people again?

Even if the DSP's Australian critics prove to be right and Australian leftists have to fight harder at home as the rulers attempt to salvage something by arguing for greater austerity to pay for more military spending or pushing for more overseas military adventures, is that too high a price to pay for the revolutionary forces in East Timor escaping extermination and being allowed to return to the struggle instead of the certainty of having their forces destroyed? Is the struggle of workers in Australia and other imperialist countries weakened or strengthened by the survival of the liberation movement in East Timor?

The defeat of the Indonesian military in East Timor, and the undermining of the Australian government's alliance with it, have weakened it and made the prospects greater for a radical democratic revolution in Indonesia. Will that weaken or strengthen the movement in Australia?

Role of the UN

The Socialist Appeal's Ted Grant and Jean Duval, in an article posted on the internet on September 20 (see <>), generally mirrored the views of many of the DSP's detractors when they wrote:

Those who call upon the United Nations to intervene in East Timor are committing a serious mistake, despite their good intentions. The United Nations has repeatedly shown that it is not capable of solving any serious problem in the world where the fundamental interests of the imperialists are concerned. The first question which must be asked is what interests lie behind the policy of the powers which dominate the actions of the (dis-)United Nations, in the first place, the United States.

The United States is the main force behind the reaction in the world today. It has systematically supported every reactionary capitalist dictatorship and opposed revolutionary and progressive movements. To demand of US imperialism that it should play a progressive role in the world is to demand of the tiger that it should eat grass instead of meat. In the case of Indonesia, the interests of US imperialism are abundantly clear: to prop up the reactionary Habibie regime and to maintain the economic stranglehold of the United States on this key country in Asia …

The role of Australia in all this is even worse … The Australian ruling class plays the role of a weak imperialist power in Asia, attempting to carve out markets and spheres of influence for itself. This is clearly shown in the case of East Timor, where the Australian government … actively encouraged the Indonesians to invade. Ever since then, Australia has consistently backed Indonesia over East Timor.

Yet now the demand is put forward that the Australian army should intervene in East Timor, presumably to uphold the right of self-determination!

It is sufficient to pose the question concretely to realise that along this road no real solution is possible.

Grant and Duval then point out that the conduct of the UN since the referendum had been "revolting in the extreme".

The presence of unarmed observers was a farce which merely played the role of fooling the East Timorese into a false sense of security and disarming them in the face of armed reaction. The United Nations did not protect the people of East Timor, but handed them over bound and gagged to their enemies.

The UN "delayed its intervention and withdrew its officials while the butchers continued their bloody work unimpeded", Grant and Duval continued.

If they really wanted to, the Americans and the Australians could put an end to this in 24 hours. But in practice their vested interests and support for the ruling clique in Jakarta weighs far more heavily on the scales than their concern for the fate of the East Timorese! To put one's hopes in the good faith of the very powers that are directly responsible for the crucifixion of East Timor is an entirely mistaken policy and one that can only lead to disaster.

Grant and Duval correctly detail Washington's and Canberra's long backing of the Jakarta generals' oppression of East Timor, but fail to explain imperialism's sudden 180-degree change of tack.

The DSP and the other far-left parties that backed the liberation movement's call for UN intervention did not have illusions in the "good intentions" of the UN Security Council or the Australian and US governments. However, the massive public exposures of the crimes of the Indonesian military and their death squad "militias", combined with massive public opposition, both spontaneous and organised together with the continued struggle in East Timor and the gains of the democracy movement inside Indonesia forced the UN and the Australian and US governments to act contrary to their previous policy.

Grant and Duval's criticism on the UN's "unarmed observers", "delayed intervention" and withdrawal of officials that allowed the Indonesian butchers' "bloody work" to continue "unimpeded", raises the question: shouldn't socialists have demanded that the UN speed its intervention, armed if necessary, to fulfil the promise it made to the East Timorese people that the referendum results would be respected? To oppose UN intervention, using Grant's and Duval's own arguments, would only have served to allow the butchers to complete their work.

The DSP and the solidarity movement had long criticised the UN's failure to guarantee safety during and after the referendum. The May 5 agreement's acquiescence in the TNI retaining responsibility for "security" was condemned. It was clear then that the UN mandate should have included responsibility for security; i.e., an armed force should have been present throughout the referendum campaign and afterwards. Had that been the case, thousands of lives would have been saved. Yet Grant and Duval's position is that socialists should have opposed an armed UN presence from the very beginning.

What position should revolutionary socialists have taken on the referendum itself? Wasn't it also an imperialist intervention using the cover of the UN to maintain imperialist domination? As such, shouldn't socialists have campaigned against it as well, since to expect an imperialist-orchestrated referendum to play any progressive role is like expecting "the tiger to eat grass instead of meat", to use Grant and Duval's phrase?

Of course, the referendum was an attempt by imperialism to maintain its dominance over Indonesia and East Timor, just as its decision finally to send in a UN force to facilitate the withdrawal of Indonesian troops from East Timor was. Imperialism always hopes to get the upper hand with every decision and policy turn it makes.

The pressure applied on Jakarta to hold the August 30 referendum represented a concession a retreat by imperialism in the face of the stubborn and heroic 24-year-long resistance struggle by the East Timorese people and the persistence of the solidarity movement in the West. The blow delivered by the democracy movement inside Indonesia with the May 1998 overthrow of Suharto was decisive in forcing Jakarta, Canberra and Washington to change tack in the hope of politically stabilising Indonesia.

In the same sense, the decision to commit troops was a further retreat by imperialism, forced upon it by massive popular unrest in Australia and parts of Europe and growing popular concern in the US. As in the referendum, imperialism made a concession with the intention of regaining control of the situation.

Faced with the political impossibility of continued Indonesian rule over East Timor an option Australian and US imperialism clung to for as long as possible until they blinked at the prospect of losing the lot imperialism was forced to switch to "Plan B" consolidate East Timor as a formally independent neo-colony and hope that the weakened Indonesian regime does not lose control in Indonesia.

How successful imperialism's gambit will be can be decided only in struggle within East Timor and Indonesia and by the continued strength of the solidarity movement outside. It has to be acknowledged that the fact that progress remains on the agenda is only because imperialism's retreat has allowed the Timorese liberation movement to survive.

To refuse to accept such retreats because the imperialists have ulterior motives is the height of foolishness. Every wage rise won by workers through militant strike action no matter how large and every reform ever extracted from capitalist governments through mass action no matter how fundamental are also retreats by the capitalists in order to regain control and ensure that the private profit system survives. Should revolutionaries then, as a matter of principle, reject all wage rises and all reforms, this side of the socialist revolution? Of course not.

Is it incorrect to call on the capitalist state to use force?

Is it a principle that socialists should never call on capitalist states to use force? That socialists under no circumstances give support to UN peacekeeping forces?

Socialists every day demand that the capitalist state and its armed wings act to implement laws, or carry out police actions, that are in the objective interests of the working class and the oppressed.

In situations where the organised and mobilised working class cannot as yet carry out these tasks, calling on capitalist governments to do so can expose the capitalist state's unwillingness or inability to act in the interests of the working class or, if it is forced to make concessions in the face of mass working-class activity, achieve gains that are objectively in the interests of the working class.

When socialists call for bosses who flout workplace health and safety laws to be jailed for murder or assault, or when we demand that the owners of polluting companies be prosecuted, we are calling on the state to use force. When socialists demand that cops and screws responsible for Aboriginal deaths in custody be prosecuted and convicted, we are calling on the capitalist state to use force. When we demand that the police track down and jail racist murderers or enforce laws against rape, we are advocating the use of force by the capitalist state.

In the US, the civil rights movement called for the sending of federal troops to the southern states to enforce civil rights laws. US socialists supported the call, as US Solidarity activist Barry Sheppard explained in a posting to the "Solidarity List" on the internet on September 17:

An analogy that I think is useful was the demand the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] raised in relation to the fight of Blacks in the South against the Jim Crow [apartheid] system, when they were met with massive violence by [state] police forces and vigilantes.

We called on the federal government to send troops to defend Blacks under attack by mobs and the armed forces of the Southern states. We also championed the idea that Blacks had the right to arm themselves in self-defense from these attacks. Sometimes we combined these demands, as in the Battle of Birmingham in 1963, when Blacks began to arm and defend their meetings, and we called on the federal government to arm and deputize Blacks in the face of the violence of the racists.

The fact was that the Black people were not prepared or able to defend themselves on the scale necessary. Neither, as we have seen, are the East Timorese.

When federal troops were used in the desegregation battle, it was with great reluctance and foot-dragging by Washington. But whenever they were forced to do this, the racists were beaten back, and Blacks were emboldened to fight harder. By demanding federal troops, we also were exposing the reluctance of Washington to intervene in defense of what most Americans considered to be a just cause.

At no time did our position mean we were "sowing illusions" in the federal government, or did we ever give it political support. Quite the opposite. We exposed the complicity of Washington with the Southern establishment at every turn.

The analogy was raised in a separate discussion on the "Marxism List" on the internet on September 18 by another former member of the US SWP, Jose G. Perez:

Despite many misgivings about how these comrades have formulated their demands, it must be recognized that the Australian DSP is, in the most essential matter, correct. They are supporting the just struggle of the people of East Timor for self-determination and independence. Right now part of that struggle is the fight for an international imperialist peace-keeping force, just as a month ago part of it was the fight for an imperialist-organized referendum, and the DSP is triply right in not abstaining from these battles …

It is not the "fault" of the people of East Timor that, thanks to the blood of millions of martyrs the world over, international imperialist institutions such as the UN have been forced to recognize, at least formally, the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. It is not a "betrayal" for the people of East Timor to use this formal concession as a lever to pry out the Indonesian invaders from their homeland. It is not "treason" to demand that these imperialist world bodies back up their hypocritical "respect" for the right of the East Timorese to self-determination and independence with something more weighty than resolutions and crocodile tears.

To denounce their demand for blue helmets is just as ultraleft as the position of sectarians in the United States who denounced Black community demands that the "bourgeois imperialist" police forces and, if it comes to it, the "bourgeois imperialist" army yes the same bourgeois imperialist army that raped Vietnam and put down the ghetto rebellions in 1968, and that just pulverized Belgrade be deployed to protect the Black community against racist thuggery and terror.

The Australian DSP is absolutely right in supporting this demand of the independence movement, just as the US SWP was absolutely right when it supported Black community demands that federal troops be sent to Boston in the mid-1970s. Those who criticize them on the basis of "principle" need to explain why the same principle does not prevent them from demanding "armed intervention" and "the use of force" against racist thugs within their own states.

Grant and Duval don't hold back from the accusation that it is ultimately the Timorese liberation movement that is responsible for the "betrayal" of calling for UN intervention. They state:

Unfortunately, the main leaders of the independence movement have tried to adopt the tactic of non-violence and disarmed the movement. This was a fatal mistake. The results can now be seen. Without any armed and organised resistance, the militias have had the field to themselves, murdering and burning while the so-called forces of law and order looked on or even participated in the mayhem.

Having failed to organise self-defence, Gusmao and the other leaders of the independence movement have placed all their faith in the so-called United Nations, calling on it to intervene to save the people of East Timor …

The leadership of all segments of the independence movement, even those most on the left, such as the Timor Socialist Party (PST), look towards the so-called "international community" to guarantee the implementation of independence. By doing this they become dependent on the manoeuvres and intrigues of competing imperialist interests in the area. The role of the masses is secondary for them.

Translated this simply means that Grant and Duval think that the Timorese movement deserved all they got, and the international left should have abandoned them to their fate. Fortunately, the DSP, PRD, PSR, LCR, Solidarity, the solidarity movement and tens of thousands of working people in Australia and Portugal did not agree.

In its September 4 statement, the CWI expressed a similar position:

The Committee for a Workers' International welcomes the momentous vote for independence and believes it should mean independence from now. That means the withdrawal by the Indonesian government of all its armed forces and all forms of their aid to the murderous anti-independence "militias". It also means, in our opinion, opposition to any UN or other foreign intervention.

This does not mean leaving the East Timorese people defenceless to face another round of wholesale genocide. Without support from outside, the armed thugs would be severely weakened. The reactionary mobs could be quickly defeated and disarmed if from amongst the general population, armed defence forces were constructed. They should be deployed and democratically controlled by elected bodies of workers', students' and poor farmers' representatives. This is what the leaders of the independence struggle in East Timor should be urging on their supporters. The task of truly liberating the East Timorese people from wars and oppression, after all, lies with the people themselves, organising and seeking assistance from the workers and fighting poor of the rest of the world.

It is not a betrayal when organisations representing the oppressed make necessary compromises in the face of a stronger enemy. It is not incorrect for revolutionary forces to take advantage of the contradictions of the enemy to advance their fight.

The Timorese movement correctly recognised that Jakarta's agreement to a UN-supervised referendum was a retreat by the regime and its imperialist backers. In its view, concessions on its part were appropriate to secure a more favourable relationship of forces and terrain of struggle. These included the confinement of its forces to camps and a period of rule by the UN.

The CWI gives no clues about how "the withdrawal by the Indonesian government of all its armed forces and all forms of their aid to the murderous anti-independence 'militias'" was to be achieved.

Those on the ground in East Timor did not feel that they had the strength to defeat the Indonesian army militarily on their own, let alone believe it was feasible to construct an "armed defence force deployed and democratically controlled by elected bodies of workers', students' and poor farmers' representatives" that could "quickly defeat" the Jakarta-backed thugs. Surely, it is elementary that socialists should defer to the judgment of the liberation forces' assessment and not withhold crucial solidarity, even if they have doubts about that assessment?

The test of any such compromise is: does it preclude the future achievement of the goal? With the intervention of a UN force, has the physical survival of the East Timorese liberation movement, the departure of Indonesian troops and the gaining of formal independence within a few years prevented the movement realising its goals? To hold the view that liberation movements should never make compromises with imperialism means that they have only two options total victory or suicide. Socialist Appeal and the CWI clearly advocate the latter.

Similar ultra-leftism was displayed in an exchange between Jose Perez and the editor of the New Zealand journal Revolution, Philip Ferguson, on the Marxism List on September 19-20. Ferguson declared:

East Timor is not "independent"; it is being transformed from being the "27th province" of Indonesia to being a neo-colony of Australia and the West. That is the real significance of the DSP position and your position. You are supporting East Timor becoming an imperialist neo-colony.

In response, Perez stated:

Your position is that it makes no difference, none at all, whether East Timor is occupied by Indonesia or is a formally independent, neo-colonial country … Your point of view is that unless they make a socialist revolution, the struggle of the people of East Timor has no meaning for the proletariat. It is "independence" in quotes only, a totally meaningless juridical distinction …

But this is true of all bourgeois-democratic demands under capitalism … Dictatorship or bourgeois democracy, it's all the dictatorship of capital, right? The workers could not care less, it's all the same to us, that's the clear implication …

It does most decidedly make a difference to the workers whether they live under a military dictatorship or a bourgeois democracy just as it decidedly does make a difference whether a country is a colony or a formally independent country.

Nature of the UN

Socialists under no circumstances give support to UN peacekeeping forces? Such a proposition has never been the position of the revolutionary left. Certainly, liberation movements and revolutionaries in the past have often without illusions utilised the UN in their struggles. Socialists and solidarity activists have supported them.

It is worth looking at the UN is more detail in order to clarify how revolutionaries should relate to this organisation.

The United Nations Organisation was set up by the victorious allies at the end of World War II. Today more than 185 states send delegates to the General Assembly with equal votes. It was not, however, given any power to enforce its decisions. This power was given to the Security Council.

From the start, the Security Council, rather than the General Assembly, was the site of decisive power. Within the Security Council, real power is not concentrated in the full 15-member body but in the five permanent members the US, Britain, France, Russia and China.

Security Council resolutions require unanimous support from the permanent members and at least nine votes of the council as a whole to pass. Thus a "no" vote from any one of the five permanent members defeats a resolution. This veto power in the hands of the five permanent members has been perhaps the most defining characteristic of the UN.

While the General Assembly, and other UN bodies such as the International Court of Justice, may investigate matters and make recommendations, only the Security Council can do anything.

In the early years of the UN, Washington was assured of majority support in the General Assembly because almost the only independent Third World countries were from US-dominated Latin America.

But as the African and Asian countries won their independence from European imperialism in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, a flood of new members entered the UN and changed the complexion of the General Assembly. By the mid-1970s, the US had a lot of trouble getting its way. The low point for Washington came in 1975, when the Third World-dominated assembly passed a resolution branding Zionism a racist doctrine.

The presence of the Soviet Union and China on the Security Council often neutralised US plans to use that body for its purposes. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow used its veto 279 times. Since 1991, Russia has rarely used it.

The Zionism resolution was revoked in 1991, symbolising the new international balance of forces that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the undisputed hegemony of the US. The dominance of the US resulted in a big increase in the UN's "peacekeeping" efforts.

In its first four decades, the UN mounted 13 such operations; between 1988 and 1995, it mounted 25. The replacement of the Soviet Union by the Russian Federation removed the brake on intervention by the Western-dominated Security Council in the internal affairs of the countries (China has by and large not challenged the US for decades).

Thus the General Assembly condemned Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon and the US invasions of Panama and Grenada. The International Court of Justice found that the US had acted illegally in waging a secret war against Nicaragua and that the South African government had committed hideous crimes against its own people. But its conclusions came to nought in the real world. The US, British and French veto ensured that Israel, South Africa and the US were immune from any kind of enforcement action.

Before 1990, the "blue helmets" of the UN were deployed only in very limited circumstances. There was one notable exception Korea.

In 1950, China's seat on the Security Council was still held by the Kuomintang government operating from Taiwan. When civil war erupted in Korea in 1950, the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council to protest against the denial of the Chinese seat to the government of China.

The remaining council members were able to resolve to send UN forces to Korea under the command of the US unrestrained by the veto of the USSR. The resulting bloody war lasted for three years. It was a preview of was in store should the USSR no longer hold the US in check.

The war which marked the beginning of that New World Order was the 1991 Gulf War.

An avenue for imperialist retreat

Yet despite the undoubted dominance of the US, the UN continues to be an arena of struggle between contending international interests, principally Western imperialism on the one hand and the Third World on the other. This is especially so at the level of the General Assembly, but on a few occasions it is also reflected in the Security Council.

At certain points, the pressure of mass struggle in the Third World combined with mass popular opinion in the West has forced US imperialism to retreat. Just as the UN is used by imperialism when it launches offensives, that body has often been the mechanism Washington uses to disguise its backdowns or to allow its Third World proxies to save face.


A very similar situation to that of East Timor took place in Namibia a decade ago. Weakened by the successes of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the decisive defeat of the South African army's invasion of neighbouring Angola by the combined forces of Cuban internationalist volunteers, the Angolan army and the guerillas of the South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO), the US-imperialist-backed apartheid regime in South Africa was forced to agree to Namibia's independence. In the US and Europe, a mass anti-apartheid movement was at its peak.

In July 1988, representatives of Angola, Cuba and SWAPO on one side and South Africa on the other agreed that South Africa would reduce its troops in Namibia to 1500 prior to a UN-monitored constituent assembly election in November 1989, leading to an independent Namibian state in March 1990. In return, revolutionary Cuba agreed to withdraw its volunteers from Angola.

In August 1988, the UN Security Council approved a resolution authorising an armed UN force of 4650 troops from Australia, Denmark, Finland, Malaysia and Britain to supervise elections for the constituent assembly which would draft independent Namibia's constitution.

The UN Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG), established under UN Security Council resolution 435, was originally to have been 7500-strong. Washington argued that it be slashed to 3000. Following objections from the Non-Aligned movement, the African front-line states, SWAPO and others, the compromise of 4650 was agreed on.

The anti-apartheid movement and revolutionary socialists did not denounce the UN force as a "betrayal", nor did they declare that forcing imperialism to retreat and allow Namibia's formal independence was not an advance. Socialists did not call for the UN forces' withdrawal. Socialists did not argue that the deployment of a UN force in these circumstances sowed illusions in imperialism's or the UN's "humanitarianism".

Such a position would have played into the hands of apartheid South Africa and US imperialism. Imperialism's goal was for SWAPO to be as politically weak as possible in an independent Namibia.

Socialists opposed US efforts to reduce the UN force and exposed every instance of UN inaction in the face of Pretoria's attempts to use violence and dirty tricks to sabotage SWAPO's attempts to win a two-thirds majority in the constituent assembly. Socialists condemned Pretoria's manoeuvre of integrating 3000 members of the dreaded Koevoet, a death-squad "counterinsurgency" unit, into the police force, which was charged under resolution 435 with maintaining law and order.

Socialists condemned UNTAG's slowness in deploying troops and its failure to confront i.e. they demanded that the UN use force against South African troops and police who killed hundreds of SWAPO fighters and supporters in the first weeks of the transition process.

International pressure by the anti-apartheid movement especially in the US, where outrage at the slackness of UNTAG was fuelled by press coverage of massacres forced the US to apply pressure to the South African-appointed administrator of Namibia, and in August 1989 Koevoet were confined to barracks for the duration of the election campaign.

SWAPO won an overwhelming victory in Namibia's November 7-11, 1989, constituent assembly elections. The remaining South African occupation forces withdrew a week later, and the UN troops left in April 1990. The creation of an independent Namibia, despite all the obstacles thrown in its path by the apartheid regime and Washington, was a massive defeat for Pretoria and an inspiration to the people in South Africa still struggling against apartheid.

South Africa and Israel

Similarly, it was the combination of the anti-apartheid struggle inside South Africa and the mass solidarity movement throughout the world in the 1980s that forced the UN Security Council to impose a range of arms and economic sanctions on Pretoria. The impact of those sanctions speeded the demise of apartheid.

Socialists did not respond by denouncing these concessions by imperialism. They campaigned for them to be enforced as major imperialist powers flouted them or turned a blind eye to widespread "sanctions busting" scams.

As of 1998, Israel was defying as many as 69 UN Security Council resolutions. At least 29 others had been vetoed by the US. The fact that 69 resolutions were allowed to pass by Washington was a concession to the anti-imperialist sentiment in the Arab world and public opinion in the West.

Socialists did not simply ignore these resolutions' existence, but highlighted the hypocrisy of the failure of the UN to enforce them, in stark contrast to its actions in relation to Iraq, Libya and Iran.


While it is not a perfect analogy, revolutionary socialists' attitude toward the UN can be likened to that toward bourgeois parliaments. Like parliament, which is thoroughly bourgeois, the UN is thoroughly imperialist. Should socialists then boycott it, declare it "politically obsolete"?

This is not the position taken by revolutionary Cuba. Cuba participates actively in the General Assembly to propagandise for socialism, to defend the Cuban revolution by mobilising opposition to the US blockade of the island, and to argue in favour of action that helps the oppressed and working majority of the world. Cuba does not call for the UN's abolition but for it to be transformed by the abolition of the veto power of the five permanent members and for its democratisation so that the Third World majority can control it.

Cuba's participation which inevitably requires it to call on the UN Security Council to act in the interests of oppressed exposes imperialism's hypocrisy and inaction. It also allows Cuba to exploit differences between its enemies and play them off against one another.

On November 9, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution for the eighth successive year, and by a record 155-2 majority (twelve abstentions), calling for an end to the forty-year US economic blockade. Only Israel voted with the US.

"Washington's friends and allies as well as its usual adversaries [such as Japan, Canada, Norway, Australia, and Finland on behalf of the European Union] supported the resolution, mainly because they consider their own sovereignty is infringed by the 'extra-territorial' effects of the embargo in punishing non-US companies that trade with Cuba", reported Reuters.

In situations where imperialism is forced to retreat in the face of struggle, Cuba's participation helps maximise the gains won by the oppressed as its role in Namibia's independence showed.

Cuba has no qualms about participating in the UN Security Council. At the time of the Gulf War, the only members of the Security Council to vote against the resolution that authorised the attack on Iraq were Cuba and Yemen.

Such an approach gives Cuba another avenue to exploit differences between our enemies. The fact that the 1998 US-British bombing campaign against Iraq was not undertaken with UN approval because of dissent within the Security Council notably France and that war against Yugoslavia was carried under the auspices of NATO, rather than the UN, indicates that even at the Security Council level, the US does not hold unbridled sway. The ability of Cuba to tactically influence decisions at that level can at least hamper imperialism's activities.

The DSP and the solidarity movement will continue (as they did before and during the emergency campaign) to campaign for an end to all military ties with Indonesia, for the recognition of East Timor's independence, for the Timorese people to be only ones able to determine how long the UN force remains, for all those responsible for the crimes against humanity in East Timor direct and indirect (this includes all Australian prime ministers from Whitlam on) to be put on trial, and for the Australian government and big business to pay reparations to East Timor.

We will continue to expose the sordid role of imperialist governments in the oppression of the Timorese and warn that the movement must be vigilant and continue to mobilise if East Timor is to be truly free.

[Terry Townsend is a member of the National Committee of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party.]