East Timor and the new humanitarian interventionism

N.J. Wheeler, T. Dunne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Citations (Scopus)


The fate of East Timor provides a barometer for how far the normative structure of international society has been transformed since the end of the Cold War. In 1975, the East Timorese were abandoned by a Western bloc that placed accommodating the Indonesian invasion of the island before the protection of human rights. Twenty-five years later, it was the protection of the civilian population on the island that loomed large in the calculations of these same states Australia, which had sacrificed the rights of the people of East Timor on the altar of good relations with Indonesia, found itself leading an intervention force that challenged the old certainties of its 'Jakarta first' policy. The article charts the interplay of domestic and international factors that made this normative transformation possible. The authors examine the political and economic factors that led to the agreement in May 1999 between Portugal, Indonesia and the UN to hold a referendum on the future political status of East Timor. A key question is whether the international community should have done more to assure the security of the ballot process. The authors argue that while more could have been done by Australia, the United States and officials in the UN Secretariat to place this issue on the Security Council's agenda, it is highly unlikely that the international community would have proved capable of mobilizing the political will necessary to coerce Indonesia into accepting a peacekeeping force. The second part of the article looks at how the outbreak of the violence in early September 1999 fundamentally changed these political assumptions. The authors argue that it became politically possible to employ coercion against Indonesian sovereignty in a context in which the Habibie government was viewed as having failed to exercise sovereignty with responsibility. By focusing on the economic and military sanctions employed by Western states, the pressures exerted by the international financial institutions and the intense diplomatic activity at the UN and in Jakarta, the authors show how Indonesian political and military leaders were prevailed upon to accept an international force. At the same time, Australian reporting of the atrocities and how this prompted the Howard government to an intervention that challenged traditional conceptions of Australia's vital interests, is considered. The conclusion reflects on how this case supports the claim that traditional notions of sovereignty are increasingly constrained by norms of humanitarian responsibility.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)805-827
Number of pages23
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2001


Dive into the research topics of 'East Timor and the new humanitarian interventionism'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this