The international legal community stumbled upon another opportunity to decide the state of humanitarian intervention law only a few short months after Kosovo, this time halfway around the world in East Timor. Indonesia invaded East Timor, a Portuguese colony, in 1974, and had maintained (unrecognized) control since. The UN set up the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) to oversee the territory's independence vote. With the territory¹s overwhelming vote for independence from Indonesia on August 30, 1999, a wave of violence erupted against the East Timorese, much of it sponsored by the Indonesian government. After initially refusing UN calls for international humanitarian operations, Indonesia finally relented and allowed an Australian-led International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) to enter on September 12, 1999. The UN authorized INTERFET to take ³all necessary measures² to restore law and order under Chapter VII on September 15, and peace was soon restored in East Timor. Indonesia is currently in the process of relinquishing control of the territory to a UN peacekeeping force.
But what if it had been different? The situation seemed to starkly mirror the events leading up to the Kosovo conflict earlier that year- what if Indonesia had said ³No² to peacekeepers? Would there have been legal justification for humanitarian intervention by a regional organization without UN authorization?
Certainly the humanitarian situation was enough to justify intervention, especially when compared to Kosovo. Indonesian-sponsored militias attacked, tortured and killed hundreds and possibly thousands of East Timorese civilians. Many reliable reports told of executions of pregnant women, killing of babies, and torturing of men and boys. A UN estimate put the number of refugees at up to 500,000 people (almost 50% the population), 150,000 of whom crossed into Indonesian West Timor. The World Food Program estimated 740,000 East Timorese would need food aid in the following six months. The UN mission in the capital, Dili, was evacuated due to the violence, and the Vatican press reported a massacre in Suai, where militias killed 100 people in grenade attacks against Catholic priests.
The similarities of East Timor and Kosovo are strong. Both territories were historically and culturally distinct from their controlling governments, and both had only recently been annexed into those governments. In both cases, the government opposed international intervention, and repeatedly stalled negotiations when called upon to allow outside forces in the country. The humanitarian crisis in both situations was extremely grave, and perpetrated by government military, paramilitary, and militia forces to instill terror the civilian population. Finally, the governments of both territories attempted some sort of ethnic cleansing¹ of the region, whether through the Greater Serbia¹ policy of Kosovo, or the more subtle ³Operation Combing² of the Indonesian government.
The greatest differences between East Timor and Kosovo lies in the face that the refugee crisis in East Timor did not spill over into other states, as it had in Kosovo; therefore, it could not be characterized as a traditional threat to international peace under Article 52. However, as evidenced by Resolutions 688 and 794, the Security Council has shown willingness in the past to find threats to international peace even without demonstrating refugees crossing international borders. A threat to international peace and security can exist by grave humanitarian crisis alone.
Because Article 53 recognizes the right of regional organizations to act within their competence of local disputes, there may be some geographic limitation against an organization such as NATO from undertaking a humanitarian intervention so far outside its regional borders. While this remains to be determined, a principle of legality of a local regional organization such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in using force for humanitarian operations. Additionally, because Indonesia is a member of ASEAN, as discussed earlier the organization might even have intervention authority under a broad reading of Article 53. Either way, the example of Kosovo has shown that there would now be a strong presumption for the legality of humanitarian intervention by a regional organization even without UN authorization.