[TimorLesteStudies] New Article: Lia Kent: East Timor reparations both symbolic and material

Bu Wilson Bu.Wilson at anu.edu.au
Wed Mar 19 08:15:28 EST 2008

East Timor reparations both symbolic and material
Lia Kent
Eureka Street March 18, 2008

As a close observer of justice and reconciliation 
issues in East Timor, I have watched with great 
interest as the debates on 'acknowledging the past' unfold in Australia.

In many ways the two nations could not be more 
different. East Timor, colonised for more than 
400 years, is now one of the world's newest 
nations. Australia, a settler society, is one of its oldest democracies.

Yet Australia could learn much from East Timor 
about the importance - and limitations - of 
acknowledging a painful past. In particular, East 
Timor's experience suggests the significance of 
both symbolic forms of acknowledgement and 
material reparations to those who have experienced past injustices.

After independence, the East Timorese leadership 
emphasised the need to 'move on'. They shied away 
from demanding reparations for abuses committed 
during the Indonesian occupation, partly for 
reasons of pragmatic international relations. 
Then President Xanana Gusmao suggested the 
population was best served by a focus on 
practical issues: poverty reduction, electricity, 
decent housing and medical care.

In Australia, the Howard Government also 
expressed a preference for 'practical' forms of 
assistance to indigenous communities, and a focus 
on the future, rather than the past.

Against these 'pragmatic' responses have come 
moves to ensure that both East Timorese victims 
of violence and indigenous Australians receive 
some form of official, public acknowledgement of their experiences.

 From 2002, a number of East Timorese survivors 
were able to participate in an independent 
Commission for Reception, Truth and 
Reconciliation (CAVR). While many welcomed the 
opportunity to tell their stories to the nation, 
there were widespread expectations that justice 
and economic compensation would follow. Following 
the release of the CAVR's final report in 2005, 
the political debate in Timor is now turning 
toward the question of victims' reparations.

Within Australia, Prime Minister Rudd's recent 
apology is a first step towards acknowledging the 
wrongs committed against members of the Stolen 
Generations. We should not be surprised if the 
issue of compensation now also emerges as an 
important focus for many indigenous Australians.

It is helpful to view questions of compensation 
within a framework of 'reparations' for past 
wrongs. Reparations can encompass material as 
well as symbolic measures, and measures directed 
to both individuals and communities.

Material reparations may take the form of 
compensation, including payments of cash or 
service packages, and provisions for health, education or housing.

Symbolic reparations may include official 
apologies, the change of names of public spaces, 
the establishment of days of commemoration, and 
the creation of museums and parks dedicated to victims.

There is a strong relationship between 
reparations and 'justice'. The political theorist 
Axel Honneth suggests that at the heart of 
demands for justice is a craving for official 
recognition of experiences of harm.

The idea of justice as recognition suggests that 
acknowledgement of wrongdoing, in both symbolic 
and material ways, is central to the restoration 
of victims' dignity and to the establishment of 
relations based on equality and respect. It is on 
the basis of acknowledgement that a new process 
of relationship-building between the state and 
victims can begin. In this sense, the Rudd 
apology, the CAVR, and future discussions on 
other forms of reparation such as compensation, 
can be seen as aspects of a commitment to justice.

Like apologies, material reparations are 
important for the recognition they provide to 
victims. In very practical ways, they recognise 
the ongoing consequences of injustice in victims' 
everyday lives. While reparations can never bring 
back the dead, or restore lost opportunities, 
they can symbolise the official acknowledgement 
of victims' suffering and their inclusion as 
equal citizens in a new political community. In 
this sense, reparations are oriented towards the 
building of a truly shared future.

Viewing reparations as a form of recognition also 
means we should be wary of attempts to substitute 
reparations for broader development programs. 
Development and welfare programs do not offer the 
same form of recognition to those who have been 
harmed, and therefore are often perceived, quite 
rightly, as programs that distribute goods which 
victims have rights to as citizens and not necessarily as victims.

East Timor and Australia face similar challenges 
in acknowledging and responding to past 
injustices in order to build inclusive 
communities. In both cases this process will be a 
long one. What the East Timor experience suggests 
is that for acknowledgement to have continuing 
resonance it must act as an opening for new 
conversations about reparations. Let us hope that 
both the Rudd and Gusmao governments are open to 
where these conversations may lead.

Lia Kent worked as a Human Rights Officer with 
the United Nations Transitional Administration in 
East Timor from 2000-2002. She is currently a PhD 
Candidate at the University of Melbourne.

Bu Wilson
Regulatory  Institutions Network (RegNet) 
College of Asia and the Pacific, RSPAS
Australian National University 
Canberra   ACT   0200 

T: 02 6125 3194 
F: 02 6125 1507
M: 0407 087 086 
E: Bu.Wilson at anu.edu.au


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