As dawn rose on Saturday May 15 1999, a lone car made its way through the quiet Hertfordshire countryside bound for the Eurotunnel. Before noon its only occupant PHR-UK Chair Peter Hall was in the Hague, his destination a meeting of human rights organisations convened to discuss ways of combining efforts to prevent genocide. Among those present were, International Alert and the Leo Kuper Foundation from London, Genocide Watch and Prevent Genocide International from Washington and others from mainland Europe.
Drawing on their experiences with Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda the group determined to develop a campaign to end genocide. They agreed to share their information and efforts to end developing genocides while seeking to improve structures available to the international community to enable it to prevent, suppress or punish genocide, such as the training of a rapid response force and the establishment of an independent international criminal court.
The campaign did not have long to wait before its capacity to meet its ambitious objectives was tested. In August 1999, a UN supervised election in East Timor resulted in a 78% vote for independence from Indonesia. There followed a violent response by anti-independence militias. Overseas students who had been recruited by the UN to supervise the election suddenly found themselves aboard planes whisked away from the people they had persuaded to go out and vote, as shots rang through the air and smoke rose from looted homes.
The campaign swiftly formed an East Timor Crisis Group, and drew on other NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Catholic Relief Services. Five objectives were set. The immediate goal was to get an international peacekeeping force into East Timor and to provide aid for displaced persons. A special session of the UN Commission on Human Rights needed to be convened to set up a UN inquiry into the atrocities, to be followed by a tribunal to try the perpetrators of international crimes.
Tasks were divided up amongst the campaign's members. PHR-UK took the lead in appraising the UK Foreign Secretary of the need to create an international criminal tribunal for East Timor. The following day, Robin Cook publicly announced his support for the creation of a tribunal. The Leo Kuper Foundation used its excellent relations with a Paris based NGO to inform the French Government. Amnesty International took the lead in lobbying the 53 members of the Commission on Human Rights to convene a special meeting. They succeeded by one vote - bringing about only the 4th special session in its 50 years existence. In Washington, the government, the IMF and the World Bank were lobbied, and all three advised Indonesia's President Habibie of the importance of accepting a peacekeeping force if he wanted financial assistance to continue.Indonesia acquiesced.
Swiftly, Australia launched a UN approved peacekeeping force. Catholic Relief Services then led a refugee relief project. The UN Commission on Human Rights instigated a commission of enquiry, which recommended that a tribunal prosecute those who carried out gross violations of human rights. The 200,000 East Timorese refugees forced into West Timor were allowed to return home.
This is not a success story of course. People died or were injured. Homes were looted or burnt out. Displaced persons remain. Those who were persuaded by the young volunteers with the UN that it was safe to vote are left feeling that their trust was betrayed. Many UN volunteers remain distraught at what was allowed to happen and their own powerlessness in the face of it. However, what might have become another Twentieth Century genocide was averted. The major powers acted and the UN Security Council and Commission on Human Rights worked in the way they are supposed to. This came about through the foresight and combined efforts of human rights groups anxious to see the lessons of previous genocides learned. PHR-UK played its part. It was worthwhile getting up early one May morning.