17 November 2005


On 25 June 1996, the European Union released its first Common Position on East Timor. Given the political importance of this document, we have reproduced it in full.

The Council of the European Union, Having regard to the Treaty on European Union, and in particular Article J.2. thereof, has defined the following Common Position:

Article 1

The European Union, referring to its previous declarations on the situation in East Timor, intends to pursue the following aims:

  1. to contribute to the achievement by dialogue of a fair, comprehensive and internationally acceptable solution to the question of East Timor, which fully respects the interests and legitimate aspirations of the Timorese people, in accordance with international law;
  2. to improve the situation in East Timor regarding respect for human rights in the territory.

Article 2

To pursue the aims referred to in Article 1, the European Union:

  1. supports the initiatives undertaken in the United Nations framework which may contribute to resolving this question;
  2. supports in particular the current talks under the aegis of the United Nations Secretary-General with the aim of achieving the solution referred to in point 1) of Article 1, effective progress towards which continues to be hampered by serious obstacles;
  3. encourages the continuation of Inter-Timor meetings in the context of this process of dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations;
  4. calls upon the Indonesian Government to adopt effective measures leading to a significant improvement in the human rights situation in East Timor, in particular by implementing fully the relevant decisions adopted by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights;
  5. supports all appropriate action with the objective of generally strengthening respect for human rights in East Timor and substantially improving the situation of its people, by means of the resources available to the European Union and aid for action by NGOs.

Article 3

The Council will be responsible for the follow-up concerning this common position.

Article 4

This common position shall apply from the date of its adoption.

Article 5

This common position shall be published in the Official Journal.

Done at Luxembourg for the Council.

The Common Position (CP) was controversial even before it was made public. Although it was agreed to in January 1996, the document was not made public because of British and Dutch vetoes during the hostage crisis in West Papua, when British and Dutch scientists were amongst the hostages taken by the Free Papua Movement (OPM). Once the hostage crisis was resolved, the British government blocked the release of the CP as part of its strategy of holding up EU proceedings until the EU showed flexibility on the issue of UK beef exports.

Perhaps because of the delays in releasing the CP, its content did not attract as much attention as one might have expected. A close look at the statement, however, shows that it contains a number of important commitments. Article 1 lays out crucial objectives against which the practices of the European Commission and EU Council (ie. member states) can be measured. Article 2 stresses the EU's support for peace talks under UN auspices, as well as for commitments undertaken in the UN Commission on Human Rights. Article 2.5 also commits the EU to allocate resources to strengthen respect for human rights and improve the situation of the Timorese people. While the CP disappointed some activists by not committing the EU to curtail arms sales to Indonesia, the positive measures to which it refers could, if carefully implemented, have an impact in the international arena and on the ground inside East Timor.

Implementing the Common Position

Frustrated by the absence of action by the EC and other members states after the CP was made public in June, and particularly by the inability to obtain an EU Council declaration applauding the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Monsignor Belo and Mr Ramos Horta in October, the government of Portugal proposed that the EU Council should act on Article 2.4 by urging the government of Indonesia to comply with the commitments it made to the UN Commission on Human Rights in April 1996, and the European Commission should prepare proposals for concrete assistance to East Timor on the basis of Article 2.5.

With regards to Article 2.5, Portugal suggested that the Commission draft plans for projects in the areas of public health, education and culture, to be implemented by Timorese institutions such as the Catholic Church and by European NGOs. The government of Ireland, in its capacity as Presidency of the EU in late 1996, supported the Portuguese demarche. Although initially opposed by one member state and by the Indonesian Permanent Representative in Brussels, the initiative went ahead after more positive signals were received from Jakarta.

On that basis, the EC began consulting European NGOs with experience in East Timor and drafting proposals for an assistance package. Yet on 31 January 1997, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas stated, at the World Economic Forum, that no aid to East Timor would be accepted unless it was channelled through Indonesian agencies. This presents the EU with a dilemma: without Indonesian consent no EU assistance can be delivered; but any assistance channelled through Indonesian agencies will be incompatible with the EU's non-recognition of Indonesia's claim to sovereignty over the territory; it would also be unacceptable to some member states, members of the European Parliament, and many European NGOs. Finally, assistance channelled through Indonesian institutions is unlikely to strengthen civil society, an essential condition for human development, peace and reconciliation inside East Timor.

Other aspects of the CP also remain to be implemented. An Irish-Portuguese attempt to get the EU to press the government of Indonesia to comply with its commitments to the UN Commission on Human Rights was also seen as 'untimely' by certain member states in December 1996. It will be interesting to see if the EU sees this option as more timely in the run up to the 53rd session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in March-April 1997.