Mass Murderers and Double Standards of Justice
by Joseph Nevins

December 20, 2003

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President 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.

What 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 to Jakarta.

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 prosecution.

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 reached at: jonevins@vassar.edu


Other Articles by Joseph Nevins


* “Tiger Force” and the Costs Of Forgetting US Crimes in Vietnam

* Beyond the Myth: Remembering Jimmy Carter, the President

* Border Death-Trap: Time to Tear Down America's Berlin Wall






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