14 February 2011

Justice Seidauk Mai (Justice is yet to come): Rethinking the dynamics of transitional justice in East Timor

Abstract - This thesis analyses the grounds of separation between the official claims made for the UN-sponsored transitional justice process in East Timor and community discontent. It does this by analysing fieldwork findings – including interviews with survivors of East Timor’s conflict – and engaging with critical and ethnographic scholarship on transitional justice, in order to examine the interplay between different narratives of justice circulating in East Timor in the post-referendum period. These narratives emanate from three separate, yet intersecting, spheres: the international, the national and the local.

The thesis begins by examining narratives of retributive and restorative justice promoted in the international sphere, through the UN’s transitional justice ‘tool-kit’. These narratives emphasise the importance of individual accountability, and the therapeutic value of truth-telling, to respond to the violence of the past and foster East Timor’s transition from conflict to peace. It then discusses the contrasting narratives promoted in the national sphere, by East Timor’s political elite, which stress collective and forward-looking ideas of social justice as the best way to move on from the violent past. Finally, it considers narratives generated within the local sphere, promoted by East Timorese survivors. It shows that local narratives, which are informed by survivors’ personal – and often continuing – experiences of injustice, both contest and draw upon national and international narratives and are transforming them in new ways.

By charting the intricate interactions between these narratives, the thesis shows that the UN-sponsored transitional justice process has been unable to provide a definitive ‘justice’ response that marks a rupture between the past and future. Rather, it has contributed to an ongoing, locally grounded, conversation about how best to ‘deal with the past.’ The thesis shows that the official transitional justice process has produced new forms of political engagement and is transforming local justice struggles in unexpected ways. By bringing to the fore the dynamism of these developments in East Timor, the thesis argues that transitional justice might best be understood as a continuing and productive interaction between international, national and local actors.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Introduction                                                                                                  

1.1 Community Discontent with the Results of Transitional Justice in East Timor                       

1.1.1 The Official Celebration of Official Transitional Justice Discourse and Practice

1.1.2 East Timor: From Colonialism to ‘Transition’

1.2 Interrogating ‘Transition’ and ‘Justice’                                                                                 

1.2.1 Unravelling the Universalist Assumptions of International Law and State-building

1.2.2 Unpacking ‘Transition’

1.2.3 Unpacking ‘Justice’

1.2.4 Justice from Below

1.3 Thesis Overview                                                                                                               

1.3.1 Chapter Overview

Chapter Two: Exploring ‘Official’ and ‘Local’ Narratives of Justice in Transition                           

2.1 Background, Conceptual Framework and Methodological Approach                                    

2.2 Ethical Issues: Power, Representation and Reflexivity                                                           

2.3 Data Collection Sites and Fieldwork Methods                                                                     

2.4  Ethical Issues Arising During Interviews                                                                            

2.5 Participants                                                                                                                       

2.6 Methodological Constraints                                                                                               

2.7 Reliability, Validity and Broader Applicability of Research Findings                                        

2.8 Conclusion                                                                                                                        

Chapter Three:  Stability versus Retributive Justice: Unpacking the UN’s East Timor ‘Success Story’                                                            

3.1 The Externally Devised Transitional Justice Process and the East Timor ‘Success Story’         

3.2 The UNTAET Period and the Emergence of the Stability Narrative                                     

3.3 Post-Independence Tensions                                                                                             

3.4 The ‘Crisis’ of 2006 and the Unravelling of the East Timor Success Story                             

3.5 Conclusion                                                                                                                        

Chapter Four: Justice in the Shadow of the Stability Imperatives                                                        

4.1              The Retributive Justice Possibilities of the Serious Crimes Process                                  

4.2        Justice Beyond the Criminal Law                                                                                 

4.3        The Restorative Justice Possibilities of the Commission for Reception, Truth and

Reconciliation (CAVR)                                                                                                

4.4        Justice Beyond the Truth Commission                                                                         

4.5        Conclusion                                                                                                                

Chapter Five:  National Unity, Collective Struggle and the Future: the East Timorese Leadership’s

Narratives of Justice and Nation-Building                                                                     

5.1        Narratives of National Unity, Sacrifice and Resistance during the Struggle for


5.2        National Unity Narratives in Post-referendum approaches to Justice,

Reconciliation and Commemoration                                                                            

5.3        Tensions, Cleavages and Exclusions emerging in the Post-referendum Period                

5.4        Recent Developments: the Leadership’s Responses to Chega!                                         

5.5        Conclusion                                                                                                                 

Chapter Six: Local Narratives of (In)Justice: Recognition, Prosecutions and Material Assistance                                                    

6.1        Customary East Timorese systems of Justice and Conflict Resolution                            

6.2        Truth-telling: Symbolic Recognition and a Stepping Stone to Practical ‘Results’                

6.3        Ambivalence, Hesitancy and the Limits of CAVR recognition                                        

6.4        The Community Reconciliation Process: a Tentative and Conditional Acceptance            

6.5        Justice as Prosecutions, Declarations and Punishment                                                   

6.6        The Serious Crimes Process as a Continuation of Injustice                                              

6.7        Results as Material Assistance                                                                                      

6.8        Conclusion: Elusive Justice                                                                                          

Chapter Seven: Local Memory Practices and the Emerging Politics of Victims’ Rights

7.1        Local Memory Practices: Remaking the World                                                              

7.2        Local Memory Practices: Struggles for Recognition                                                       

7.3        The Dialogue between Victims’ Groups and NGOs                                                      

7.4        The Possibilities and Limits of Victims’ Rights Politics                                                  

7.5        Conclusion                                                                                                                

Chapter Eight: Rethinking Transitional Justice                                                                                      

8.1        Transitional Justice in East Timor: a Dynamic Interaction between International, 

National and Local Actors                                                                                          

8.2        Rethinking Transitional Justice: Implications for Practitioners and Scholars                     

8.3        Rethinking Transitional Justice: Implications for East Timor Justice Activists and            


8.4        Rethinking Transitional Justice                                                                                      

Kent, Lia. PhD thesis Submitted August 2010, University of Melbourne For further information about the project please contact lia.kent@anu.edu.au

Lia Kent
Postdoctoral Fellow,State, Society and Governance in Melanesia
School of International, Political and Strategic Studies
ANU College of Asia and the Pacific

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