Abstract: This paper examines early warning of, and political responses to, mass atrocities in East Timor in the late 1970s. Using newly-declassified intelligence and diplomatic records, it describes Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 and its three year military campaign to crush the East Timorese resistance. It shows that the campaign resulted in mass deaths due to famine and disease, and considers the United Nations’ response to the unfolding crisis. It evaluates the level of international awareness of the humanitarian crisis in East Timor by inspecting contemporaneous eyewitness reports by foreign diplomats from states with a keen interest in Indonesia: Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Canada. In contrast to a popular, highly lauded view, the paper shows that these states did not “look away”; rather, they had early warning and ongoing knowledge of the catastrophe but provided military and diplomatic assistance to Indonesia. The paper contrasts a counter-productive effort by civil society activists with a very effective one, and thus demonstrates the role that robust scholarship can play in terminating atrocities.
Keywords: atrocities; Australia; crimes against humanity; East Timor; famine; genocide; Indonesia; responsibility to protect; R2P; United Nations; war crimes