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Genocide:dying for a definition

THE MANDATE for the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in East Timor finally ended last Friday. It was a mission that might never have been needed.

After four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, followed by an Indonesian invasion, and an oppressive occupation lasting 25 years, the majority of East Timorese voted for independence in a UN-sponsored ballot in August 1999.

In response, pro-Jakarta militias went on a devastating month-long rampage. People suspected of independence sympathies were attacked and killed. Ninety per cent of the population was displaced, and more than 200,000 were relocated to Indonesian West Timor. Public infrastructure and private property were systematically destroyed.

A hastily convened international peacekeeping mission (INTERFET) quickly ended the violence and restored order. The enormous task of repairing amenities and restoring trust then began in the world’s newest nation.

After visiting East Timor in 2001, I started to reflect on the ways in which the Good Samaritan story told by Jesus (Luke 10.25-37) might relate to the East Timorese experience. It proved a profitable exercise.

The parable was Jesus’s response to a man preoccupied with moral self-justification, who sought to exclude himself from responsibility for injustice and suffering. The story’s principal message is not about resisting evil or showing kindness. These injunctions were self-evident to Jesus’s hearers.

The moral lessons were these: first, a capacity to assist a neighbour creates a duty to do so; second, a person in need is no longer a stranger — he or she has become a neighbour. Now that modern communications have transformed the world into a “global village”, people like the East Timorese have become everyone’s neighbour. They were entitled to our assistance.

And yet a number of countries cited a variety of reasons for “passing by on the other side” and ignoring these people as they suffered oppression and brutality. The international community failed to intervene and ameliorate their situation.

The principal excuse was the lack of a clear mandate for action, but this masked an absence of will simply to do what was right. In contrast, the Good Samaritan was committed to being a good neighbour, despite the cost or the consequences.

When the international community eventually responded in East Timor, most of the damage had been done. Genuine concern might have prevented the violence from proliferating and escalating into mass murder. Early action would have averted a long and costly reconstruction. Nearly seven years on, the East Timorese continue to recover in body, mind, and spirit. It could have been so different.

Thankfully, these critical insights have not gone unnoticed. In the face, too, of, the genocides in Rwanda and Kosovo, an international commitment has emerged to prevent wholesale  slaughter in the future.

Nottwithstanding the need for diplomatic sensitivity, Christians must insist that people such as those in Darfur, in Sudan, do not become victims of genocide, too, because the world’s response is either as slow, or inadequate as it was in East Timor.

Christians across the world must be active in promoting a political culture in which it is electorally appealing and politically rewarding to develop collaborative projects and international partnerships that profess an unashamed spirit of altruism. In so doing, we will have been good neighbours, and so thus blessed.

Dr Tom Frame is Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force.

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