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British arms company enjoys impunity

the screening of 'passabe: what is the price of peace?' about east timor massacre is a reminder of bae systems lack of accountability for fuelling the conflict, as the gigantic arms company holds its annual general meeting near westminster.
09 May 2007

Two apparently unrelated events that together raise important questions about the West’s responsibility for conflicts in the world’s poorest countries are being held in London today.

The first British screening of the acclaimed film ‘Passabe: What is the price of peace?’ takes place at a centre for reconciliation and peace on the former site of St Ethelburga’s Church in Bishopsgate, destroyed by a massive IRA bomb in 1993.

The film describes how victims and perpetrators in the East Timorese village of Passabe attempt to come to terms with their horrific past and the massacre of 74 men by Indonesian-backed militias in September 1999 following East Timor’s historic vote for independence.

Earlier in the day the annual general meeting of Britain’s largest arms company, BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace) is being held in the more ostentatious setting of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre close to the centres of power in Westminster.

The remote village of Passabe lies on the precarious border between Indonesian West Timor and the East Timor enclave of Oecusse. In the run up to the 1999 vote, Passabe was a base for hundreds of pro-Indonesia militiamen who participated in a campaign of terror that climaxed in the bloody massacre.

The film provides an intimate look at how ordinary folk struggle to rebuild their lives and attempt to come to terms with their gruesome recent history.

It also prompts its audience to consider the wider context in which the massacre took place and question why such an appalling crime was committed. Part of the answer is provided by the highly-praised report of East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (know by its Portuguese acronym, CAVR). Hearings conducted under the CAVR’s Community Reconciliation Process feature prominently in the film.

As well as documenting the ‘massive, widespread and systematic human rights violations against the civilian population’ by the Indonesian military and its militia proxies, the CAVR highlights the role played by Britain and other western governments in supporting the aggressor in the conflict. This policy was, says the CAVR, dictated by Britain’s long-standing commercial interests in Indonesia.

In particular, Britain was a major supplier of arms to Indonesia during the occupation. The CAVR recommends that the British government and business corporations that profited from weapons sales to Indonesia contribute to a reparations programme for the victims.

There is no suggestion that British military equipment played any part in the Passabe atrocity. But that is not the point, as the CAVR makes clear:

‘Whether or not British-made military equipment was used in specific violations in [East Timor], the provision of military assistance helped Indonesia upgrade its military capability and freed up the potential for the Indonesian armed forces to use other equipment in [East Timor]. More importantly, the provision of military aid to Indonesia by a major Western power and member of the Security Council was a signal of substantial political support to the aggressor in the conflict, and outraged and bewildered East Timorese who knew of Britain’s professed support for self-determination.’

The British company that derived the most profit from the sale of weapons to Indonesia was BAE Systems. Eight of the company’s Hawk light combat aircraft were first sold to Indonesia in 1978. More orders for a total of 40 aircraft followed in the 1990s. Scorpion and Stormer armoured vehicles made by Alvis and Tactica water cannon vehicles made by GKN-subsidiary, Glover Webb, were also sold. Both Alvis and GKN have since been absorbed into the BAE Systems conglomerate.

These exports would not have been possible without export licences provided by the British government.

However, neither the British government nor BAE Systems have responded to the CAVR report, let alone acted on its recommendations regarding reparations. On the contrary, BAE Systems has been negotiating with Indonesian government representatives about the possible sale of yet more Hawk aircraft. It is not unreasonable to fear that they could be used in other Indonesian conflict areas such as West Papua.

BAE Systems is under intense pressure over alleged corruption involving deals with Saudi Arabia, Chile, Romania, South Africa, Tanzania, Czech republic and Qatar. There is therefore understandable concern about the fact that it is touting for business in a country that is working hard to combat its own deep-seated problems with bribery and corruption, especially in relation to the funding of the armed forces.

With half the population living in poverty and the government still paying hundreds of millions of pounds for previous arms deals, the prospective Hawk deal could also have a significant impact on Indonesia’s poor.

Indonesia's indebtedness to the Britain's Export Credit Guarantee Department ECGD, which underwrites the cost of British exports, stood at approximately £565 million for military equipment at the end of February 2007.  That represented 75 per cent of the total debt.  Around £340 million was for the purchase of Hawk aircraft under previous deals. Repayment of the debt is not due to be completed until 2021.

BAE Systems seems to be enjoying what amounts to impunity for its supporting role in the East Timor conflict. I will be attending the AGM and asking questions aimed at ensuring it is properly held to account. Otherwise, it will continue to believe it can carry on with business as usual.

I will also invite the board of directors to attend the screening of Passabe so they can have no doubt about the possible consequences of their dubious commercial activities.

The writer works for the British-based, TAPOL the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign.