HL Deb 13 October 1999 vol 605 cc364-6

3.15 p.m.

Lord Aveburyasked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they will take to further the apprehension and indictment of war criminals in East Timor.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice. The Government are very concerned about the reports of atrocities committed in East Timor. There is a pressing need to establish the facts and who was responsible.

An international commission of inquiry has been set up by the UN and we are offering our practical support. The Commission will report to the UN Secretary-General before the end of the year.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I thank the Minister warmly for the close interest that the Government have always displayed on the issue of East Timor, and the Foreign Secretary in particular for his active concern. Is the Minister aware that the Commission which is to be set up will have no jurisdiction over the offences but only a power to inquire into what offences were committed and by whom?

Will the Government therefore try to ensure that the transitional authority being established by the UN has criminal jurisdiction over the criminal acts which have been committed during the Indonesian occupation? Will she also ask the Security Council for a ruling on whether the fourth Geneva Convention applies to East Timor so that these criminal acts can be subject to universal jurisdiction and tried in the courts as signatory states?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, your Lordships will know that the details of the transitional authority are still being worked out. The UN Secretary-General's report makes clear that one of the objectives of the transitional authority is to create non-discriminatory and impartial institutions, particularly the judiciary and the police, to ensure the establishment and maintenance of the rule of law and to promote and protect human rights. As stated by the Secretary-General's special representative, it is to facilitate the creation of an independent East Timorese human rights institution whose functions will include investigation of alleged violation of human rights.

It is very important to establish what happened. If we act precipitously and on ill-founded evidence, we might identify the wrong culprits, if indeed there are culprits for these atrocities. Therefore there is a real need to act with a degree of circumspection and caution.

The noble Lord will know that the Security Council does not make rulings on the applicability of the Geneva Convention. I shall seek to respond to the noble Lord in written form, if that would be acceptable to him.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, rather than addressing these situations ad hoc, the best method of bringing war criminals to justice would be to establish the international criminal court. Can my noble friend give an estimate of when this country is likely to ratify the treaty?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot say anything specific in relation to the ratification of the treaty; what I can say is that the appropriate nature of our response should be dependent upon the facts once they are established. We know that a number of solutions and responses have been adopted in the international fora; for example, in South Africa. There is a whole panoply of appropriate responses. We have to await the results of our inquiries and see what recommendations come from the UN. We have to engage the people of East Timor, because they have been the primary sufferers of these atrocities. Their views as to the best way forward must be of great significance to the international community.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, in view of the huge numbers of East Timorese who are missing in West Timor, estimated at some 500,000, on which occasions and to what effect have the Government put pressure on President Habibie to make good his pledge to the international community that all displaced persons in West Timor will be protected, humanely cared for and allowed to return safely to East Timor?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have been clear in the exhortations that have been made to President Habibie on behalf of Her Majesty's Government on these issues. We have to bear in mind that Indonesia has taken a number of crucial steps towards the establishment of democracy within its borders and in East Timor. It has an ability and it would appear now perhaps a willingness to engage constructively.

We shall continue to exhort Indonesia in relation to all the matters to which the noble Lord refers.