Special Panel for Serious Crimes (East Timor)

The Special Panels for Serious Crimes (SPSC) in East Timor were established by the United Nations, acting as the transitional authority between the end of the Indonesian occupation in 1999 and the independence of East Timor in 2002.

The UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) established the Special Panels under its mandate to establish law and order after the end of the hostilities. The UNTAET Regulation 2000/15, approved in July 2000, described the operation of the new Special Panels.

Following the withdrawal of the Indonesian military in September 1999 a series of inquiries were conducted by the Indonesian authorities and the United Nations.

The UN established an Investigative Commission, which reported that hundreds of civilian had been killed, property had been destroyed on a large scale, and thousands of people had been driven from their homes. The report also alleged that the militias were financed and equipped by the Indonesian military and civilian authorities in East Timor. In particular, the Commission focussed on violence during 1999, especially the brutal rampage by Indonesian military and pro-Indonesian militias, following a referendum result in September 1999 in favour of East Timorese independence.

A proposal by the Investigative Commission of Inquiry in East Timor to establish an international tribunal, similar to those seen after the Yugoslav and Rwandan conflicts, was rejected in favour of courts established within the national legal system of East Timor. These were, therefore, the first of the mixed or internationalised courts.

Under Section 9 of UNTAET Regulation 2000/15, the Panels were invested with authority over serious international and national crimes committed between January and October of 1999. The international crimes listed included genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The trials were monitored by the independent Judicial System Monitoring Programme (JSMP). That organisation created a full and detailed record of many of the indictments and judgements created within the Special Panels. They also published monitoring reports on the work of the East Timor Special Panels and wider issues of justice in the country.

The Special Panels suffered from a number of problems, including the lack of ownership by East Timor and a crisis in funding. A lack of support for the trials, both in Dili and at the UN, exacerbated those problems and the non-cooperation of Indonesia meant that5 only low level offenders ever faced justice.

While the SPSC saw a greater number of trials than those at other internationalised courts, there were many criticism of the process and suggestions that the trials fell short of international standards.

In his 2006 report, David Cohen stated that “[t]rials for murder often took only a few days, numbers of witnesses were often small, the defence case typically abbreviated and weak, [and] the conviction rate was high at 97.7%.” Even permitting for the brevity of trials seen in civil law jurisdictions, this could highlight some of the weaknesses of the trials and the failure to apply international standards of fairness.

The East Timorese victims are the ones who suffer most from the failure of the SPSC. Cheap justice is a poor substitute for full justice. These trials should be remembered for failing to offer victims justice and will stand as a warning to those who accept that justice on a shoestring is a viable response to international crimes.

A truth and reconciliation process ran along side the formal justice process conducted through the Special Panels. The report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation was published in January 2005. That report shared many recommendations with a UN Commission of Experts (CoE) report later in 2005. Both reports indicate that there are still further international crimes which may be prosecuted in East Timor. Such recommendations have led the International Federation for East Timor to ask that the UN create an ad hoc international criminal tribunal, to be located in a neutral third state.

Following independence in May 2002, the Special Panels continued under the authority of the East Timor government, but in May 2005, with the withdrawal of much of the United Nations infrastructure, the Special Panels suspended operations indefinitely.

Related links and further reading:

  • Report of the Investigative Commission of Inquiry on East Timor to the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/54/726-S/2000/59 (31 January 2000).
  • UNTAET, ‘On the Establishment of Panels with Exclusive Jurisdiction Over Serious Criminal Offences’, UN Doc. UNTAET/Reg/2000/15 (6 June 2000).
  • Judicial System Monitoring Programme: http://www.jsmp.minihub.org
  • Timor-L'este Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation website: http://www.cavr-timorleste.org/
  • D. Cohen, ‘Indifference and Accountability: The United Nations and the Politics of International Justice in East Timor’, 2006 East West Centre Special Rep. 9.