Orphans' or Veterans? Justice for Children Born of War in East Timor




Harris Rimmer, Susan

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The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice


All over East Timor, one can find “orphans” whose parents still live, and “wives” who have never been married. These labels mask an open secret in Timorese society—hundreds of babies were born of rape during the Indonesian occupation from 1974 to 1999. In juxtaposition, as a result of the 2004 UNFPA-conducted census, there is finally data available on the current population of East Timor and it has unexpectedly revealed a baby boom, perhaps in response to the emotional losses of the occupation. The fertility rate was found to be the highest in the world, at 8.3 babies per woman.1 The baby as the symbol of both wound and healing is clearly at play in Timor at the present time. Nonetheless, there is official silence on the number and treatment of the children born of conflict, a lack of attention in the transitional justice mechanisms in place in Timor in regard to the human rights violations that produced their situation, and no official policies to deal with the needs of these children or their mothers, or the discrimination they may face. The challenge posed by these children and women to the social fabric of Timor reveals important gaps and silences within the international human rights law framework which might nonetheless be addressed by some fairly straightforward policy innovations. In this paper, I argue that status of the mothers socially and legally, as it impacts on the well-being and ability of the children to claim their rights, needs to be more fully addressed in transitional justice debates. Within Timor, there is a definite ambivalence about the idea of these women as contributors to independence during the occupation, and discomfiture regarding their status as so-called “wives” of Indonesian military. This cultural construction is both exacerbated and challenged by the ambivalent influence of Catholic teachings on East Timorese society. Nonetheless, social currents also exist that, if strategically used to reconstruct the image of these children and women, could more effectively reframe their trauma in transitional justice discourse, and contribute both to their well-being and the long-term process of reconciliation in East Timor. The paper proceeds in two sections. First, I first provide an overview of the situation of sexual violence survivors and their children in East Timor. In the second section I discuss current approaches to the children and their mothers within the transitional justice mechanisms available in East Timor at this time. I aim to shift the current approach to children born of war in Timor from covert welfare assistance by the Catholic Church and NGOs, to a rights-based framework, where the affected children are publicly accepted with valid claims on the Government, rather than seen as by-products of a crime or sin. From this analysis it becomes clear that creative policy and legal options are required that would assist these families with integration, status and financial security. I conclude with one such proposal to improve the situation of these families: re-characterise the affected women and their children as “veterans” of the conflict, with the same status as the former Falintil guerrillas.



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