On 7 December 1975 the Indonesian armed forces brutally invaded East Timor. East Timor, a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years, had days before unilaterally declared its independence. The answer of Jakarta to the UN Security Council’s call for the withdrawal of the forces was the official annexation of the territory. The UN condemned the act and continued to consider East Timor as a Non-self-governing Territory and Portugal as its Administering Power. But many countries – including the major world powers and almost all of Indonesia’s neighbors – turned a blind eye to that blatant violation of international law and accepted or tended to accept the annexation as a fait accompli.

The illegal occupation was accompanied by acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. At the end of the eighties about 250,000 Timorese, roughly one third of the original population, had lost their lives due to violence and famine, but Western governments continued to sell arms to Jakarta and training of Indonesian military in the United States, Australia and United Kingdom went on, as the drama of East Timor was practically ignored by the international public. In fact, most media have downplayed the news of the ongoing massacres in the territory. A turning point was the public outrage by the Santa Cruz massacre in Dili of 12 November 1991, thanks to the video footage of a courageous journalist, shown in many TV stations worldwide. This massacre, in which 271 East Timorese were killed, was called an abnormal, unfortunate incident by the Indonesian authorities. It was certainly not an abnormal incident, but just one in a long series of acts of genocide. In the previous 16 years of Indonesian occupation an average of 40 East Timorese were killed each day – a Santa Cruz “incident” every week…

After a long, epic struggle of the East Timorese for their right to self-determination (a struggle in three fronts – armed resistance in the mountains, underground resistance in the towns and diplomatic struggle abroad), Indonesia was finally forced to allow a UN-supervised referendum. On 31 August 1999 the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence. Local militias, who had been mobilized by the Indonesian military in a futile attempt to skew the vote by terror, went on a violent rampage. Always with the assistance of the military they killed hundreds of people and destroyed much of the territory’s infrastructure. In a matter of days, the military and their militias forcibly deported hundred of thousands of East Timorese to West Timor and other parts of Indonesia. After much hesitation from the international community a multinational force arrived in East Timor on 20 September. On 31 October the last Indonesian military left the territory and two weeks later the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) started its functions. In August 2001 elections were held for the Timorese Parliament, that were followed by presidential elections. On 20 May 2002 East Timor became the first new independent State of this century.

International legality may have been restored in East Timor, but some huge tasks lay still ahead. Most of the people responsible for the crimes committed in East Timor – particularly the Indonesian high-rank military and the heads of the several militias – have still to be arrested and face an impartial trial. Last but not the least, the East Timorese have to be prepared for the new tasks after independence.


In 1990, when the East Timorese cause was perceived by many as a lost one, a group of international lawyers decided to set up an organization which would contribute to the end of East Timor’s foreign occupation. They were encouraged by Eritrean and Namibian independences and positive developments in Western Sahara and South Africa. The International Platform of Jurists for East Timor (IPJET) was officially founded during a conference held in Lisbon, Portugal, from 8 to 10 November of 1991 – two days before the Santa Cruz massacre. The conference was attended by more than 60 jurists from 15 countries representing all continents.

IPJET has today 630 members from more than 80 countries and territories, mostly professors/lecturers at law schools, attorneys, civil servants and human rights activists. Its executive organ is the International Council composed of fifteen members from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Czech Republic, East Timor, India, Macao (China), Netherlands, Philippines, Portugal, South Africa and the United States.


The initial objectives of the Platform, as inscribed in its statute, were the termination of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and the creation of conditions that could allow the Timorese to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination.

To pursue those objectives the statute of the Platform foresaw the use of several means, which included:


With the independence of East Timor, the above-mentioned objectives were fully attained and the Platform could have been dissolved. Yet, a majority of its Council members opted for the continuation of IPJET.

The most obvious task for IPJET after the referendum would be to give the Timorese leaders legal advice and to help the set up of the necessary State institutions. In October 1999 the secretary of IPJET attended in Darwin some of the meetings of CNRT, the umbrella resistance organisation of the Timorese national unity, chaired by Xanana Gusmão, who had just arrived from Jakarta. During those meetings several CNRT members asked support from IPJET on legal issues. The Platform’s Council decided to send to East Timor a mission, whose first task would be to access the humanitarian and human rights situation in the territory and to conduct an investigation concerning crimes against humanity and concrete acts of genocide committed there. Last but not the least, the Portuguese Commission for Support to Transition in East Timor offered IPJET office room in one of the few buildings of Dili that were already being rebuilt. Everything seemed to be running smoothly – except that the Timorese leaders, perhaps stunned by the avalanche, from October onwards, of governmental envoys, INGOs and NGOs (many of whom had given no attention to the territory when it was under occupation), and perhaps under the influence of the headship of UNTAET[1] (not interested in criticism from independent observers[2]), did not elaborate nor concretized in which projects IPJET could be involved.

The Secretariat and the International Council of IPJET faced therefore a dilemma: whether start projects in the territory without the input of the Timorese leaders or abstain from any activity where such input was considered necessary. We chose the second alternative, considering that choosing the first would amount to a neocolonialist attitude. In practical terms, the only activity that IPJET could deploy without needing the input or the consent of the Timorese was the struggle against impunity: the crimes committed in East Timor are international crimes – because of their very nature, they affect the international community as a whole and not only the Timorese.


Another reason why it was decided to continue with the IPJET was the need to support the struggle of the Sahrawi people for the exercise of their right to self-determination. Before international law the questions of East Timor and Western Sahara are like two drops of water. Besides, the constitutive assembly of IPJET had already underlined in its conclusions ‘the need for the Portuguese State to assume before other international questions, and in particular the problem of the Western Sahara, a coherent position which takes into account the similarity of the situations’. The East Timorese themselves are steadfast defenders of the Saharawi cause. Significantly, Mohamed Abdelaziz, the late President of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and head of Polisario-led government in exile, was a guest of honor at the Timor-Leste independence ceremonies of May 2002.

The astonishing similarity between the questions of East Timor and Western Sahara makes the position of the succeeding Portuguese governments on this issue particularly untenable. One of the few writings on the problem of Western Sahara published in Portugal finished with this words: “In order to be coherent, Portugal cannot keep running away from the question of Western Sahara.(…) (N)ot only in name of legal principles or logical coherence (…) the Portuguese support to the Sahrawi cause, besides being morally desirable, may have much influence in the development of the question of East Timor.” [3] This appeal fell in deaf ears in Lisbon. Portugal went on closing its eyes to the Moroccan occupation  of Western Sahara and, even worse, started profiting from the Saharawi natural resources, through bilateral and EU fisheries agreements with Morocco. Five years later, during the written and oral proceedings of the East Timor case, Australia made grateful use of this inconsistency of the Portuguese foreign policy. As it is well known, Portugal lost the case. For sure, its lack of moral authority weighted heavily on the mind of the Judges.

But, of course, the main responsible are the Moroccan regime, which invaded, occupied and annexed a territory that does not belong to it, Spain, which relinquished its responsibility as Administrative Power and constantly betrayed the Sahrawi people and France, which is squarely behind Morocco and prevents any UN action against Rabat. These are therefore the main target of our current actions.


[1] The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, that provided an interim civil administration and a peacekeeping mission in the territory from October 1999 to the independence day on May 20, 2002.

[2] Nevertheless, many IPJET members worked for UNTAET and expressed frequently their criticism of the policies chosen. One of them, Jarat Chopra, Assistant Professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, served as head of District Administration for UNTAET. In his letter of resignation of March 2000 he warned that some senior UN officials were more interested in their career than helping the Timorese and accused them of colonialist practices. About his experience he wrote ‘The UN’s Kingdom of East Timor’ (Survival 42:3, 2000, pp.27-40) and Building State Failure in East Timor (Development and Change, 33:5, November 2002, pp. 979-1000).

[3] Pinto Leite, Pedro, O caso do Sara Ocidental: um Modelo para Timor-Leste?, Movimento Cristão para a Paz, Coimbra, 1992, p.45.