The United Nations Response to Indonesia’s Invasion of East Timor (December 1975)

By Jordan Sneyd-Dewar

This post summarizes materials in the United Nations Archives just posted to the Timor International Solidarity Archive, especially the UN Secretariat’s 1975 file.

On November 28, 1975, East Timor declared itself independent from their Portuguese colonial occupiers. The declaration should have been a landmark moment for a people that had finally gained their independence. The declaration gave sovereignty to the East Timorese people. This newly established sovereignty would instantly be violated by a military invasion from Indonesia. The breach of East Timorese sovereignty by Indonesia met condemnation from countries around the world. Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor breached the foundational principles of the United Nations inaugurated in the United Nations Charter (1945) and the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (1960).

The United Nations Charter (pictured left) outlines the foundational principles of the United Nations. The first of these principles declares how the United Nations is determined to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The Charter also affirms the “equal rights of nations large and small.”  The Charter was not the only important international legislation Indonesia disregarded, it also disregarded the United Nations’ crucial resolution 1514.

In December 1960, the United Nations General Assembly called for an end to colonial rule with a Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (resolution 1514). The resolution guaranteed the right to self-determination for all people by characterizing foreign rule as a violation of human rights. This resolution legitimized the right to self-determination of all colonized peoples. Resolution 1514 would help propel the 1960s into becoming a decade of decolonization, when many African and Asia countries would replace colonial rulers with their own countries. Resolution 1514 protected people’s rights to self-determination from foreign powers, a protection which Indonesia blatantly ignored. The importance of resolution 1514 can be observed in its continued reference during the Timor crisis of 1975.

Two days after Indonesia’s invasion, on December 9th, Guyana, Sierra Leone, and Trinidad & Tobago submitted a draft resolution calling on all states to respect the rights of the people of Portuguese Timor. This resolution was supported on the same day by a similar draft resolution by India, Iran, Malaysia, Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Thailand (pictured right). These resolutions were constructed in accordance with the principle of self-determination embedded in both resolution 1514 and the Charter. Both resolutions deplored Indonesia’s disregard of the rights of East Timorese people to self-determination. These draft resolutions included a proposal that the United Nations General Assembly adopt a UN draft resolution about the situation in East Timor.

The United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt a Draft Resolution on East Timor on December 11, 1975. (United Nations General Assembly Meetings 2188 & 2189) The draft resolution on the “Question of Timor” passed on December 22, 1975. The resolution focuses on the right to self-determination the people of East Timor have in accordance with United Nations General Assembly resolution 1514.  It was adopted by the United Nations Security Council at its 1869th meeting and numbered resolution 384.  The resolution contained seven steps of future action to avoid further bloodshed and sought to ensure East Timor was granted its inalienable right to self-determination. These steps called upon all states to respect the territorial integrity of East Timor and for Indonesia to withdraw all its forces from the territory. The resolution included a request that the Secretary-General send a special representative to East Timor to make an on-the-spot assessment of the existing situation and make recommendations to the Security Council.

The countries who most actively spoke out against the Indonesian invasion of East Timor were mostly smaller nations that were former Portuguese colonies. The example of São Tomé and Principe illustrates this phenomenon. A small island country off the west coast of Africa, São Tomé was colonized by the Portuguese. In the United Nations, it vehemently condemned the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. On December 12, 1975, the President of São Tomé and Principe, Manuel Pinto da Costa, cabled United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim about the Indonesian invasion. He deplored Indonesia’s aggression and stated that the military intervention was a violation of the fundamental principles of the United Nations. Pinto da Costa warned that if the United Nations remained inactive in the face of this aggression there would be no restraint against the use of force by more powerful countries against smaller states. His cable outlines how smaller nations rely on the United Nations as a means in which to guarantee their self-determination.

From a specific evaluation of December 1975, the United Nations condemnation of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor was swift and effective. The invasion went against the foundational principles of the United Nations established by the United Nations Charter of 1945 and continued with resolution 1514. The nations deploring the Indonesian invasion referenced both these pieces of international legislation in order to prove the immorality of Indonesia’s invasion. The rhetoric against the Indonesian invasion by members of the United Nations demonstrates that when its core principles are violated there is a transnational unity amongst members of the United Nations. The tragedy of this unity is that it is rarely effectively mobilized to make a real difference in the world. In the case of East Timor, the Indonesian invasion was not stopped by rhetoric. Indonesia would occupy the country for twenty bloody years leading to many thousands of deaths.

In order for the United Nations to apply its fundamental principles, it must create new apparatuses that use force to defend the principles of self-determination. When self-determination is violated in places like East Timor, there must be more than just rhetorical consequences for the aggressors. In order for the United Nations to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, they must react to breaches of sovereignty. This reaction will prevent future aggressors from violating the sanctity of sovereignty and allow the world to peacefully coexist.