Bush's promise that Saddam Hussein "will face the justice he denied to
millions" took on a special meaning when I first read his words announcing
the deposed Iraqi president's capture. I had just completed a friend's book
manuscript on the events preceding the bloody seizure of power in Indonesia
by General Suharto, a man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of
thousands. But unlike in the case of Hussein, Washington has no desire that
Suharto and his accomplices be held accountable for their crimes. The
reasons why, and the fact that the United States is in position to realize
its desires, painfully illustrate the poverty and hypocrisy of international
justice in practice.
Beginning in October 1965, Suharto and his army organized and carried out
what the C.I.A. described "as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th
century." Over the course of several months, they slaughtered members of the
Indonesian communist party (PKI) along with members of loosely affiliated
organizations such as women's group and labor unions.
Amnesty International estimated "many more than one million" killed. The
head of the Indonesia state security system approximated the toll at half a
million, with another 750,000 jailed or sent to concentration camps.
Marshal Green, American ambassador to Indonesia at the time, wrote that the
embassy had "made clear" to the army that Washington was "generally
sympathetic with and admiring" of its actions. Indeed, the United States had
helped lay the groundwork for the coup through its support for the military,
and through intelligence operations aimed at weakening the PKI and drawing
the party into conflict with the army. Accordingly, Washington supplied
weaponry, telecommunications equipment, as well as food and other aid to the
army in the early weeks of the killings. The U.S. embassy also provided the
names of thousands of PKI cadre who were subsequently executed.
This same military launched a full-scale invasion of neighboring East Timor
on December 7, 1975. While meeting with Suharto the previous day in
Indonesia's capital, then-president Gerald Ford and secretary of state Henry
Kissinger approved of the invasion plans and the use of American weaponry,
but asked Suharto to wait until they returned to the United States. About 14
hours after their departure, Indonesian forces attacked.
followed was a war and occupation that cost over 200,000 East Timorese
lives--about one-third of the pre-invasion population--and 24 years of
American complicity in the slaughter. From the Ford administration to that
of Clinton, the United States provided billions of dollars in military
weaponry and training and economic assistance, as well as diplomatic cover
Today, Suharto, in retirement, resides comfortably in Jakarta, and the
brutal military he helped to build remains intact, free to commit atrocities
throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Similarly, officials from the United
States complicit with the 1965-66 slaughter and Indonesia's reign of terror
in East Timor continue their lives unhindered. Not surprisingly, the United
States and its Western allies--many of whom also actively supported
Jakarta's crimes--have made it clear that they have no desire to see an
international tribunal for Indonesia and East Timor established.
Comparing laws to spider webs, Anarchasis observed in the 6th century B.C.
that laws catch the weak and poor, while the rich and powerful tear them to
pieces. Although not always the case, the ancient philosopher has shown
himself to be prophetic in the area of contemporary international affairs, a
profoundly undemocratic arena in which the powerful demand accountability of
their weaker enemies, while insulating themselves and their allies from
Whatever we may call this, it is not justice.
Joseph Nevins is an assistant professor
of geography at Vassar College. He is the author of A Not-So Distant
Horror: Making and Accounting for Mass Violence in East Timor, which
Cornell University Press will publish in early 2005.
He can be
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