In December 1975 the Indonesian military launched a full-scale invasion of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, nine days after it declared its independence. The Indonesian intelligence apparatus had warned that the tiny country could create security problems by strengthening separatist sentiments within Indonesia and possibly serving as a base for subversives. The Indonesian government tried—through a mix of propaganda, assistance to a small pro-Indonesia group within East Timor, and provocation of a civil war in the territory—to dampen pro-independence sentiment. When those efforts failed, it invaded.

By the time the Indonesian military withdrew in October 1999, nearly 25 years later, tens of thousands of people had died, victims of a staggeringly brutal occupation backed by many of the world’s most powerful countries. That backing goes some distance to explaining why UN action in East Timor was stymied for so long, why there has been no responsibility taken for East Timor’s plight, and why the now independent country continues to suffer such profound socioeconomic dislocation.

Despite the almost unimaginable human destruction, East Timor’s experience is hardly surprising: impunity for the powerful and their friends is built into the architecture of international organizations. As the Mexican delegate to the United Nations’ founding convention in 1945 opined, the UN Charter ensured that “the mice would be disciplined, but the lions would be free.”

Advocates of human rights and international law struggle to impose some discipline on the lions, too. Programs of transitional justice—a mix of judicial and non-judicial approaches to securing accountability for mass atrocities and systematic human rights abuses, and to reconstructing damaged social bonds—are one such effort. And the typical first step in transitional justice is official truth-telling, often carried out by a national or international commission that documents and publicizes past abuses and the agents responsible for them. The assumption behind such initiatives—South Africa’s perhaps being the best-known example—is that the truth can contribute to justice and enable former adversaries to live together in relative peace.

In January 2006, East Timor’s government delivered to the United Nations the final report of the country’s Commission on Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (CAVR). Called Chega! (Portuguese for “Enough!” or “Stop!”), the approximately 2,500-page document provides chilling detail of many of the worst atrocities committed during Jakarta’s reign of terror, including widespread torture, extrajudicial killings, “disappearances,” politically created famine, and indiscriminate bombing.

The commission determined that Indonesia’s invasion and occupation resulted in the deaths of at least 102,800 and as many as 201,900 East Timorese civilians, most killed by hunger and illness. On either end of the scale, this is a huge percentage of the country’s population, which was less than 700,000 in 1975. (The CAVR did not estimate the number of combatant deaths.) The CAVR also estimates that Indonesian forces committed “thousands” of acts of sexual violence—including the torture of women, mutilation of women’s sexual organs, gang rapes, and sexual enslavement—these acts that were “widespread and systematic,” “widely accepted” within the military hierarchy, and “covered by almost total impunity.”

The Indonesia military was responsible for the vast majority of the crimes, but Chega! reports that Western governments provided Jakarta with billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, military training, and economic aid, as well as invaluable diplomatic cover. Collectively, this assistance—the report characterizes U.S. support as particularly “fundamental” to Indonesia’s crimes—was decisive in permitting the invasion in the first place and for allowing the occupation to persist for so long.

The National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institute based at George Washington University, supplied many of the documents detailing the American and British roles. It issued two edited electronic “briefing books” of select documents on the same day that East Timor’s president handed over the report to the country’s parliament.

Declassified government documents, many of them cited in the CAVR report, reveal that Jakarta was sufficiently worried about how Western countries would react to its aggression that Suharto, Indonesia’s dictator, vetoed earlier plans to invade East Timor and launched the invasion only after consulting Australia, Britain, and the United States.

But the documents show that Washington—as well as London—had decided to effectively sacrifice East Timor well before the invasion. In March 1975, the U.S. ambassador in Jakarta recommended to his superiors a “general policy of silence” on the Suharto regime’s planned forceful takeover of what was then Portuguese Timor. He explained that Washington had “considerable interests” in Indonesia—what Richard Nixon once described as “by far the greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area”—but had “none” in East Timor.

President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, well aware of the pending invasion, met with Suharto in Jakarta on December 6, 1975. Ford assured his Indonesian counterpart that with regard to East Timor, “We . . . will not press you on the issue. We understand . . . the intentions you have,” while Kissinger worried that “the use of U.S.-made arms could create problems.” The United States had supplied about 90 percent of Indonesia’s military equipment on the condition that it not be used for offensive purposes. Kissinger promised Suharto that the United States would not regard the invasion as an aggression, while expressing understanding for Indonesia’s “need to move quickly” and advising “that it would be better if it were done after we [he and Ford] returned [to the United States].” Some 14 hours after their departure, Indonesian forces invaded.

Such understanding—and the associated material support—continued, with few interruptions, until September 1999. The reason was largely economic: as a State Department spokesman explained in 1976, “We regard Indonesia as a friendly, non-aligned nation—a nation we do a lot of business with.”

Even during the administration of Jimmy Carter, who once described human rights as the “cause that has been closest to my heart,” U.S. weaponry continued to flow to Jakarta. In late 1977, when Indonesia was running out of military equipment, the Carter administration authorized $112 million in arms sales for fiscal year 1978 to Jakarta, up from $13 million the previous year. The administration also approved the sale of 16 F-5 fighter jets and a squadron of A-4 ground-attack bombers, while making clear to Jakarta that it did not question its takeover of East Timor.

Although U.S. assistance became more contested during the Clinton years, largely due to grass-roots and congressional pressure, the essence of U.S. policy continued—something that Chega! unfortunately glosses over. It gives the false impression that there was something fundamentally different about Clinton’s administration, which provided over $500 million in economic assistance and sold and licensed the sales of hundreds of millions of dollars in weaponry to Jakarta, while providing significant training to the Indonesian military, the TNI.

London’s conduct was similarly egregious. A July 14, 1975, letter to the foreign office from Ambassador John Ford opined that “the people of [East] Timor are in no condition to exercise the right to self-determination.” The letter explained that Cold War considerations were of little concern. Even “without Soviet or Chinese intervention,” Ford contended, East Timor would probably increasingly become the region’s “problem child.” He concluded that “it is in Britain’s interest that Indonesia should absorb the territory” and that if “there is a row in the United Nations we should keep our heads down and avoid siding against the Indonesian Government.”

A September 26, 1975, briefing paper offered several explanations for London’s favorable predisposition toward Jakarta, including the Suharto regime’s “moderate” politics in international forums, and the fact that Indonesia was a “growing market” for British goods (including, potentially, military equipment) and a “fruitful area for British investment.” Such interests underlay London’s willingness to help dilute international criticism of Jakarta’s aggression and prevent effective UN action in the war’s early stages—for which Indonesian diplomats expressed gratitude. In addition, Britain furnished much of Indonesia’s military hardware and provided the majority of Jakarta’s military purchases from 1994 to 1999. Senior TNI officials also received British training.

Given such ties, and the fact that Britain was Indonesia’s second-largest foreign investor, it is unsurprising that London, like Washington—along with Australia, Japan (which provided the lion’s share of economic assistance to Jakarta during the occupation), and other Western countries—gave Indonesia a free hand in East Timor. Even in the run-up to the August 30, 1999, UN-administered referendum on East Timor’s political status, when it was clear that the TNI was terrorizing the population, Indonesia was largely free of external constraint. The lack of pressure provided space for Indonesian troops and their “militia” proxies to unleash a final wave of killing and destruction in the few weeks following the announcement that East Timor’s population had voted overwhelmingly for independence. They laid waste to an estimated 80 percent of the territory’s buildings and infrastructure, forcibly deported about 250,000 people to Indonesia, raped untold numbers of women and girls, and killed upwards of 1,000 people.

One week into the scorched-earth campaign—on Sept. 11, 1999—Bill Clinton, under considerable pressure, finally suspended U.S. military sales to Jakarta. Hours later, London followed suit and announced a suspension of the sale and delivery of military aircraft, in addition to support for a European Union arms embargo.

Despite this extraordinary criminal record, starting with Indonesia’s very presence in East Timor, only East Timorese have so far been held accountable. A hybrid international–East Timorese court tried and convicted numerous East Timorese, mere bit players who did the TNI’s bidding. Meanwhile an Indonesian court prosecuted 18 people for crimes committed in 1999. Six were convicted, but only one, an East Timorese militia leader working under the TNI’s direction, had his conviction upheld on appeal.

The CAVR report is an important product from an emerging global industry. Truth commissions, as they are popularly known, have become almost obligatory components of the process by which national societies attempt to reconstruct and recover from violent, authoritarian rule or war. Twenty-one completed their work between 1974 (the first was in Uganda) and 2000. In the last few years, Sierra Leone, Peru, and Ghana have also published reports, and now Liberia and Morocco have up-and-running commissions.

No doubt these commissions have collectively brought to light and documented a large amount of ugly history, while giving individual histories—both of particular people and specific atrocities—the legitimacy that only such bodies can. And, as Priscilla Hayner shows in her comprehensive study of truth commissions, Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity, many have helped to hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable for their crimes.

But while truth and justice often go hand in hand, they need not. There is a danger that truth-seeking can become a substitute for justice. Indeed, in East Timor, it is not likely that the commission’s report will change much. That’s not for lack of trying. In addition to truth-telling (which the report itself accomplishes to a significant degree), the commission recommends mechanisms to achieve justice and reparations. It argues that all three elements are essential.

The complicity of Western countries in the occupation underlies the CAVR’s call for reparations, not only from Indonesia, but from “governments who provided military assistance . . . during the occupation and business corporations who benefited” from weapon sales to Jakarta. The commission recommends that “the most vulnerable victims” receive them so that they “gain access to basic services and opportunities provided to the general community.”

The impunity of Indonesia and its backers also informs the truth commission’s plea to the international community to provide “unqualified support for strong institutions of justice”—if necessary through an international tribunal—for trying war crimes and crimes against humanity in East Timor. The recommendation echoes similar calls made over the last several years by international nongovernmental organizations and significant elements of East Timorese civil society, as well as by some UN commissions charged with investigating atrocities and other injustices in East Timor.

Chega!’s call for monetary reparations is perhaps the most controversial of the recommendations. (That various truth commissions have made similar recommendations reflects the sharp rise in a politics of reparations since the fall of the Berlin Wall.) Since truth commissions typically focus on atrocities committed by actors from a particular national territory within that territory, related demands for reparations normally only make claims on actors and institutions from that country. And since state actors are often responsible for the atrocities, it is the state itself that pays such reparations—as did Chile and Argentina, for instance. East Timor’s commission is unique both in its focus on international actors—which reflects the distinctively decisive role that such actions played in the conflict—and in its concomitant demand that parties abroad provide monetary restitution. That said, there are broad precedents for such international accountability: in 1991, for instance, the UN Security Council imposed a $52 billion reparations bill on Saddam Hussein’s government following its invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Iraq has paid more than $21 billion—more than half to individual claimants, but also a considerable amount to the Kuwaiti government and various corporations—and, shockingly, continues to pay despite the end of Saddam’s regime. Such an outcome—and the lack of a similar result for East Timor—reflects international power relations. Iraq was a defeated “mouse” to be disciplined, whereas the Western countries called upon to pay reparations to East Timor are “lions,” ones on good terms with Indonesia.

There is a growing literature on the value of the reparations in efforts at restorative justice. John Torpey, for example, although generally supportive of efforts to rectify past wrongs, argues in Making Whole What Has Been Smashed that the fixation on the past embodied in demands for reparations is indicative of an “age of diminished political expectations.” He sees the proliferation of reparations politics as symptomatic of the malaise of progressive politics brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and a larger international socialist project, and by growing dismay with the nation-state mission. For Torpey, reparations politics is thus a substitute for a vision of progressive social transformation; it is part of a tendency to nurture grievance rather than fight adversity. Unable to challenge the status quo, progressive movements today focus on past injustices. As Torpey writes, “When the future collapses, the past rushes in.”

His analysis runs the risk of making a simple distinction between past and future, something Torpey himself appreciates. But even acknowledging that many contemporary injustices have roots in the past, he worries that reparations politics often seek to rebuild an elusive past.

Leveling this criticism in East Timor’s case seems wrong: the call for reparations is not oriented toward a mythic past, but rather an abject present and hope for a better future: the world’s newest country is “chained by poverty,” in the words of a United Nations Development Programme report released in January 2006. According to the report, 90 out of 1,000 children there die before their first birthday, half the population is illiterate, 64 percent suffers from food insecurity, half lack access to safe drinking water, and 40 percent live below the official poverty line, defined by an income of 55 cents a day. Reparations politics in this context might not only grow out of diminished political expectations but a realization brought about by harsh experience that a better tomorrow cannot be achieved by ignoring the past.

In addition to being Asia’s poorest country, East Timor is also a traumatized one. A November 2000 article in The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, summarized a study conducted throughout East Timor by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). Ninety-seven percent of interviewees stated that they had experienced at least one traumatic event during the Indonesian occupation. The IRCT classified 34 percent of the respondents as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ideally, reparations redress such dreadful legacies, which is why truth commissions often call for such amends, typically for specific victims of atrocities. But the tendency to focus on individual acts or events of violence may obscure systemic forms of injustice. Commissions help reify the notion that the worst injustices are those brought about by particular atrocities. In the case of South Africa, for example, one effect of the focus by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on individual acts and events was to downplay the fact that apartheid was a system, one in which certain groups and individuals—within South Africa, but also abroad—accrued substantial socioeconomic benefits, while helping to dispossess and impoverish a far greater number. Although a few thousand victims, or families of those killed during the apartheid regime, received monetary compensation as a form of reparation, the TRC’s form of justice did not help to repair the profound socioeconomic deficiencies experienced by millions of South Africans as a result of apartheid. As such, many continue to suffer from what one might term post-apartheid apartheid—apartheid not as a political-institutional regime, but as a socioeconomic system marked by deep race and class divides—as various South African analysts such as Hein Marais (South Africa: Limits to Change: The Political Economy of Transition) and Terry Bell and Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza (Unfinished Business: South Africa, apartheid and Truth) have suggested.

According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC’s chair, the commission provided another form of justice, a restorative one that heals socio-psychological and spiritual wounds. But Tutu also sees this justice as insufficient. Speaking on the day marking the formal end of the TRC’s work in March 2003, he asked rhetorically, “Can you explain how a black person wakes up in a squalid ghetto today, almost ten years after freedom? Then he goes to work in town, which is still largely white, in palatial homes. And at the end of the day, he goes back home to squalor? I don’t know why those people don’t just say, ‘To hell with peace. To hell with Tutu and the truth commission.’”

For sympathetic TRC critics like Mahmood Mamdani, truth commissions must move beyond legalistic frameworks that focus on individual victims and perpetrators to social-justice ones concerned with victims and beneficiaries in a collective sense. Because the injustice was systemic, not simply a set of ugly incidents, full reconciliation can only come about through systemic change. Failure to realize this, Mamdani contends, severely limits the ability of those allied with or benefiting from the ancien régime to live in peace with the victims—individual and collective—as the structural injustices, and the associated social tensions, live on.

While pragmatism on the part of South African beneficiaries of apartheid might potentially lead them to redistribute their privilege, there is little need for the beneficiaries, direct and indirect, of the invasion and occupation of East Timor to do so. They live outside the country’s boundaries, and, given East Timor’s marginal status in the global political economy and its relative geographic isolation, they have little to fear from East Timor. As such, the Indonesian elite and its international partners in crime have the luxury of forgetting, while the East Timorese population is condemned to remember: they will live with the physical, social, and psychological effects of the war and occupation for decades.

As recent events illustrate, this legacy makes for a dangerous chemistry. The combination of poverty and trauma—along with massive urban unemployment and the weakness of East Timor’s democratic institutions—helped turn an April protest by disaffected soldiers within the country’s military (the very existence of which owes much to the fact that the TNI has not been checked) into a protracted violent conflict, one that resulted in more than 35 deaths, about 150,000 internally displaced persons, and the reintroduction of international peacekeepers.

“Truth commissions,” the historian Greg Grandin writes, “are curious, contradictory bodies” that “often raise hope of justice symbolized by the Nuremberg Trials yet operate within the impoverished political possibilities that exist throughout much of the post–Cold War world.” The country’s government never held a high-profile public launch of Chega! for fear of offending the sensibilities of its giant neighbor and Western backers. Its president, the former guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmão, and its new prime minister, José Ramos-Horta, have rejected the recommendations for reparations, as well as calls for an international tribunal for crimes that they know all too well.

Chega! has been effectively buried: Indonesia has by and large dismissed its findings—Vice President Jusuf Kalla stated, for example, that the “accusation that we committed gross human-rights violations in East Timor is absolutely not true”—as well as its recommendations. Washington, London, and their Western allies have ignored them, and the mainstream media, following this official lead, has paid them little heed. At the UN, the secretary general—apart from making weak appeals for the prosecution of crimes carried out in 1999 (and only that year)—has said little and done less. And the powers that dominate the UN—most notably the United States, France, and Britain—have been silent on the matter of justice apart from the occasional platitude.

While the Bible says that the truth shall set us free, the aftermath of East Timor’s truth-commission report illustrates that freedom is often a prerequisite for speaking the truth: East Timor’s leaders undoubtedly desire an international tribunal and reparations, but they fear the political and economic consequences of demanding them.

There is another lesson to be learned about how immune many of us in wealthy Western countries have become to the truth’s allegedly liberating effects. Disclosures of Western participation in horrors abroad has become almost numbingly common: American and British involvement in the 1965–66 slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Indonesia, their long-standing support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, Britain’s killing of tens of thousands in colonial Kenya in the 1950s, effective U.S. backing of the Guatemalan state’s genocide against the indigenous population in the 1970s and 1980s. The documentation is extensive and irrefutable. Yet officials typically ignore it, or, when forced to confront it, deny or explain it away.

Denial is not unique to those who govern powerful Western countries. But they are uniquely able to determine which truths are valued or ignored—especially on the international level. As the psychologist Judith Herman has observed, “The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.”

The costs of failing to ensure that the West be held accountable for its crimes and complicity are high—and not only in victimized places such as East Timor. Such failures facilitate foreign policies that are all too often dismissive of international law. They help explain why the United States and Britain organized the current disaster in Iraq and are those most responsible for supporting Israel’s brutality against the Palestinians and Lebanese.

It is for such reasons that, regardless of the pragmatism of Chega!’s recommendations, and whether they call for reparations from individuals or from the state, it is necessary to echo them. The call helps us to imagine a world in which not only Suharto, now living in comfortable retirement, but also the Kissingers, Blairs, Clintons, and Bushes might be held accountable for their conduct, thus forcing policymakers in Jakarta, Washington, London, and elsewhere to hesitate before pursuing policies of state terror abroad.

Championing the recommendations can also help give greater weight to truth commissions—especially those focusing on international crimes. “If done well,” Priscilla Hayner asserts, “a truth commission can change how a country understands and accepts its past, and through that, if it is lucky, helps to fundamentally shape its future.” To the extent this is right, we need more truth commissions—especially ones that focus on crimes by the powerful—as well as more international judicial proceedings. And to the extent that it is not, it is significantly due to an international context unfavorable to truths that challenge a world order built largely on colonial and neocolonial violence. East Timor is one small and painfully enduring example; the quest for truth there is inextricably linked to the struggle for global justice.