Tais Timor, November 2001 - Vol. 3, No. 32

Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation: Popularizing Justice

The talk around East Timor's communities today has turned towards justice and reconciliation.  And it is timely that this debate has begun, with the recently concluded elections of August 30 proving that the Timorese as a whole are looking forward to a new chapter in their nation's life. 

Issues of justice are still playing heavy in the people's minds.  Generally, everyone wants some closure to the 1999 violent events.  It is this sense of closure that the Commission on Reception, Truth and Reconciliation hopes to achieve at the end of the day.

    "A sort of popular justice will take over," said Pat Walsh, UNTAET's Human Rights Unit Project Coordinator for the Commission.  He added, "The courts can't possibly handle the massive number of cases which in a normal society would go to the court system.  It will cripple the court system."

    The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation's work will not be easy.  But it would seem that East Timor's communities are ready for what's to come.  In various districts, the communities gave "incredibly positive feedback," according to Mr. Walsh, to the whole idea of popular justice during the consultations held by the Commission early this year.  The caveat: they would not have reconciliation without justice.

    "We are emphasizing that what we want is a sustainable, long-term reconciliation that the stakeholders are happy with.  We are aiming for reconciliation that includes accountability, human rights, due process... in other words, justice but not in the negative sense of revenge," said Mr. Walsh.

    In October, The Commission's Selection Panel started the search for some 40 national and regional commissioners who will help foster the reconciliation process in East Timor.  It is soliciting nominations for 5-7 national commission posts and 25-30 district commission posts before 7 November.  One position is reserved for a pro-autonomy representative.

    Once the Commissioners' positions have been filled up, the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation will be ready to cut its quasi-judicial teeth.

The following is a Question & Answer segment with Pat Walsh, UNTAET's Human Rights Unit Project Coordinator for the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.

What is the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation?

The Commission is an independent, national mechanism which will assist reconciliation between East Timorese and establish the truth about human rights violations committed between 1974 and 1999.  The Commission was initially proposed by CNRT. It was then developed by a committee comprising representatives of CNRT, six East Timorese NGOs, UNHCR, and the UNTAET Human Rights Unit,  The committee traveled to all the districts to listen to public opinion on the idea of establishing this Commission.  Since then, the National Council has approved the regulation which establishes the Commission.  This regulation has now become the law in East Timor.

Who will be in charge of the Commission? 

The Commission will be an independent body headed by 5-7 national commissioners nominated by the people.  The Commissioners will be chosen for their wisdom, integrity and commitment to human rights principles.  Public nominations will be received by a Selection Panel.  The Commission will also establish up to six regional offices.  Each Regional Office will also be led by Regional Commissioners who are nominated through the same process.

What is the timetable for the whole process?

A Selection Panel for the Commissioners has recently been established.  The Panel will conduct consultations and select the best candidates for the Commission.  The Commission will operate for two years (with a 6 month extension if needed), and will make a report and recommendations to the government.  It is expected that the Commission will begin its work towards the end of 2001.

What will the Commission do?

The Commission will have three main functions:

  1. Truth telling: 

The Commission will seek the truth regarding human rights violations that occurred in East Timor between April 25, 1974 and October 25, 1999.  The Commission will undertake special investigations and historical research, as well as a nation-wide statement taking process.  To assist in establishing the truth, the Commission will have power to order persons to give evidence before them.

  1. Community Reconciliation: 

The Commission is based on the principle that genuine reconciliation requires justice and that individuals must accept responsibility for their actions.  People who committed less serious crimes during 1999 and earlier can approach the Commission and ask that these acts be dealt with by the Commission.  A panel of local leaders, chaired by a Regional Commissioner, would call together a meeting of the perpetrators, victims and local community members.  They would discuss the crimes and propose and agreement whereby the perpetrator could do community work, make a repayment or public apology or undertake other acts of reconciliation.  If the process is completed, the District Court will make an order that those acts cannot be prosecuted in the future.

  1. Report and Recommendations:

At the end of its work, the Commission will produce a report which will be an important historical record of the extent, causes and accounting of human rights violations which occurred between 1974 and 1999.  The Commission will make recommendations to the government on legal and institutional reforms to safeguard human rights in the future and promote reconciliation.




1.  In our last conversation, you outlined the objectives of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.  What are the latest developments?

The major recent developments are the community nominations of 314 names for commissioners, the strong expressions of support we have recently received from East Timorís political and church leaders, and the excellent response from donors.  We are whistling around the Interim Office and doubling our staff to over 20 as we count down to the exciting formal establishment and start-up of the Commission.

2.  Thereís been talk of attempts to find a former pro-autonomy supporter to be part of the Commission.  How is that progressing, who are the candidates?

Members of the Selection Panel recently traveled to West Timor and met with East Timorese refugees from some 23 camps, in addition to UNTAS and militia leaders.  This was our third and most comprehensive visit to Indonesia since the Regulation establishing the Commission was promulgated in July.  The Commission was given clear support, though many searching questions were asked.  The visit resulted in several pro-autonomy nominations for national commissioners.  A short list of candidates will be announced next week.

3.  When will the first cases be heard?  What needs to be done before hearings can take place?

The names of the National Commissioners will be announced early December.  The national commissioners are responsible for the running of the Commission and will have to make a range of major policy decisions, so their appointment will be followed by a period of orientation, planning, appointment of regional commissioners and staff.  Subject to the wishes of the Commissioners we hope to undertake selected pilot projects, including hearings, early in the New Year.

4.  What has been the response of the Timorese people to the setting up of the Commission?

Weíve undertaken two major rounds of community consultations, most recently when the Selection Panel asked for names for Commissioners.  The nomination of over 300 names speaks for itself and is also a tribute to the hard work of the Selection Panel.  We are satisfied the community want reconciliation with justice and support the Commission as a sensible, practical, legal and nationally coherent approach towards this objective.  The Chief Minister, Dr. Mari Alkatiri, recently told us he regards the Commission as a national priority that deserved institutional and financial support now and post-UNTAET.

5.  There are fears that some people may not accept the findings or decisions of the Commission, and take justice into their own hands.  Is that a serious concern?

Of course in such a complex and difficult area it is possible, indeed likely, that some will disagree with the Commissionís historical conclusions and community reconciliation decisions.  Much will depend on how well the community understands the process and the facilitating skill of the commissioners.  On the other hand, we are convinced the majority of East Timorese want to look to the future and see the Commission as a constructive way of doing this without sacrificing important human rights principles.

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