The United Nations Mission in East Timor: A Success Formula for Humanitarian Intervention


The United Nations Mission in East Timor:

A Success Formula for Humanitarian Intervention



On September 20, 1999, the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) arrived at the Komoro airfield in Dili, the capital city of East Timor. INTERFET was a multinational force led by Australia under the UN mandate to “restore peace and security in East Timor … [by] all necessary measures”.[1] Over the next five months, INTERFET grew to include more than 14,000 troops from 22 countries and eventually succeeded to end the violence instigated by the Indonesian military. Such violence had overrun East Timor after its population overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence from Indonesia in the UN-administered ballot on August 30, 1999.[2]

INTERFET’s landing in East Timor was a historic moment for the country, marking the beginning of the end of the 24-year-long Indonesian colonial rule, which had been preceded by the imperial Portuguese colonization of East Timor for over 300 years since 1702. Hence, INTERFET prepared the way for East Timor’s birth as “the first new nation of the 21st century”.[3] Equally significantly, it was the first time that the UN commissioned a peace enforcement mission by a coalition of the willing led by Australia, which had mostly been considered merely a junior power in the international arena.

This Essay is a quest for the reasons that the existing literature largely considers INTERFET a success formula for humanitarian intervention; in the process, I will focus on answering the following three questions regarding the multinational humanitarian intervention in East Timor. First, has INTERFET resulted in any normative change in favor of humanitarian intervention? Second, how was the deployment of INTERFET legitimized?



  1. Background

Australian policymakers by early September 1999 recognized that intervening in East Timor would call for forceful military action, as any international presence in East Timor clearly would be to make peace. Canberra’s initial plan was to defend the deployment of INTERFET as an act of “individual or collective self-defense,” as authorized under Article 51 of the UN Charter, since it had in mind to deploy ‘ready to fight’ troops designed not only to protect themselves but also to impose a settlement to end the crisis in East Timor.[4] However, “self-defense” could not lend legitimacy to the use of force in East Timor for two reasons: firstly, Australia had not been attacked by Indonesia, and secondly, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor had been in place for the past 24 years, during which Jakarta had not stirred up an interstate conflict. Therefore, Australia instead decided to rely on Article 42 of the UN Charter, according to which only the Security Council was legally entitled to authorize a peace enforcement mission. Subsequently, INTERFET received the Security Council’s authorization through Resolution 1264 on September 15, 1999.[5]

  1. Issues Related to Justifying INTERFET

The legal basis of INTERFET was subject to widespread criticism. The Security Council is only entitled to authorize the use of military force, after it “shall determine the existence of any threat to peace and security” under Article 39 of the UN Charter. The phrase “threat to peace and security” is largely understood to mean threat to international peace and security.[6]

It was especially hard for Australia to argue that Indonesia was violating human rights in East Timor and that by doing so Indonesia was threatening “international peace and security,” for several reasons: firstly, Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor, could not be used to legitimize a forceful military reaction from a third party despite the illegality thereof, as it had occurred almost two decades prior.[7] Moreover, Australia, which had connived at the violent killings of tens of thousands of East Timorese civilians by the Indonesian forces by endorsing Indonesia’s sovereignty over East Timor in 1979, could not possibly argue years later that Indonesia’s human rights violations in East Timor constituted a new international act of aggression.[8]

Another thorny issue against the justification of the INTERFET operation was that while the renewed Indonesian violence in East Timor after the August ballot in 1999 might be considered a threat to local peace, it was a challenge to argue that it undermined international security. Indonesia’s repression of East Timor, a tiny country roughly the size of the Netherlands, for the preceding 24 years had never yielded a significant impact on the Asia Pacific region, not to mention on a global scale. In fact, the idea of deploying INTERFET bore the possibility that the operation itself would threaten international peace and security by stirring up secessionist movements in other parts of Indonesia, which had also claimed West Timor and West Papua from the Netherlands.[9] There was also a considerable risk that deploying INTERFET may escalate into a direct military confrontation between Australia and Indonesia, thereby creating a major threat to regional and international peace and security.[10]

  1. The New Norm

Resolution 1264, authorizing the establishment of INTERFET, only recognized that there was “a threat to peace and security” in East Timor, effectively leaving out the habitual qualifier of “international.” Resolution 1264 thus set a precedent in which the commitment of a multinational force into a country to resolve a worsening humanitarian crisis was authorized under Chapter VII, without specifically using the language of “international peace and security”.[11]

Indeed, the issue at hand was that providing humanitarian assistance to the East Timorese was urgent. The references in Resolution 1264 to “the continuing violence against and large-scale displacement and relocation of East Timorese civilians,” “the worsening humanitarian situation in East Timor,” “the right of refugees and displaced persons to return in safety and security to their homes,” and the “violations of humanitarian and human rights law”[12] indicated that humanitarian matters were important to the Security Council’s determination of a threat to the peace.

Thus, the Post-Cold War UN Practice in East Timor indicated the development of a new norm of humanitarian intervention in situations in which there is no threat to international peace in the traditional sense.[13] The phrase “threat to peace and security” was expanded to take on a new meaning that humanitarian matters were important to the Security Council when determining a threat to peace. That is, human rights violations that were once regarded as domestic affairs became more likely to be viewed as threats to global peace, due in part to post-Cold War experiences with such violations resulting in domestic strife, regional instability and refugee crises in neighboring states.[14] The change reflects a new and broader conception of intervention that focuses less on the international effects of a crisis and more on the human rights violations themselves.

  1. South Korea’s Contribution to Garnering Support in Asia Pacific

Asian participation was crucial especially if the operation was not to resemble an instance of ‘Western’ interference, yet the historical absence of humanitarian intervention in Asia and the prevalence of the principle of non-interference within the region were the challenges that Australia faced in garnering regional support for the East Timor intervention. Although Australia is part of South East Asia and located remotely from Western powers, its predominant European heritage has long hindered its integration into South East Asia. As a result, Australia had failed to achieve membership in the ASEAN, thereby remaining rather as an outsider in the region. Therefore, major Asian participation in INTERFET by, inter alia, Thailand, the Philippines, and South Korea was critical in preventing the multinational military intervention from resembling a Western-style intervention and contributing to eroding the ASEAN’s core principle of non-interference.[15]

Korea helped tip the balance against ASEAN reservations on transgressing the rule of non-interference, when then President Kim Dae Jung announced South Korea’s decision to contribute INTERFET on September 13, 1999.[16] The role of Kim especially was critical in rallying the region and assembling the ‘coalition of the willing’ in support of pursuing humanitarianism and self-determination for East Timor. Having established a career as an outspoken dissident against South Korea’s previous statist regimes, Kim refuted the views of Asia’s prominent authoritarian rulers such as Suharto of Indonesia and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who advocated authoritarianism as an appropriate political system for Asian culture. Kim argued that the Asian authoritarian leaders had the tendency to hide behind the mantle of state sovereignty and to champion economic development as well as cultural relativism in order to justify their shameful domestic human rights record.[17] Hence, in establishing the new norm of accepting humanitarian military intervention among Asian nations, Australia benefited quite significantly from South Korea’s readiness in supporting democratic causes in Asia Pacific.[18]

In conjunction with Kim’s advocacy for promoting democratic values in Asia, Australia’s historic participation in the multinational UN forces deployed to support the South Korean military during the Korean War was in the foreground of the close relations between Seoul and Canberra. Furthermore, it must have been non-negligible for Seoul that Canberra had donated $1 billion to the IMF relief fund for Korea in 1997, which gave a great incentive for Seoul to return a favor two years later by lending support to INTERFET.

Announced on September 13 at the APEC forum held in Auckland, Australia, the early decision of Seoul to contribute to INTERFET heralded the beginning of assembling the ‘coalition of the willing’.[19] South Korea’s early action, therefore, tipped the balance further toward humanitarian intervention in East Timor, in the regional contention between those advocating universal humanitarian values and those guarding the long-held principles of non-interference.

As a result, the multinational INTERFET force in East Timor successfully introduced a new norm of humanitarian intervention among Asian nations, as well as marking a watershed in which there was a substantial departure for the Asia Pacific region from its traditional reservations on overriding the principle of non-interference. Hence, a total of 22 countries, eight of which hailed from Asia Pacific, willingly contributed their military forces and financial and logistical aid to the first UN-mandated humanitarian intervention in Asia.



  1. Preliminary Issues

Unlike the contemporary American public that were largely averse to military intervention with humanitarian objectives, Australians in 1999 were strongly in favor of the intervention in East Timor. An opinion poll conducted in October 1999 documented the trend very well, finding that a whopping 82% of Australian voters were supportive of deploying Australian forces to East Timor.[20] The extensive media coverage of the crisis in East Timor and the vivid images of the rampant violence by the Indonesian government aroused an adamant public sentiment in Australia endorsing the military intervention to stop the violence.

In addition to the Australian version of the “CNN effect,” there was another crucial factor that played a significant part in steering the Australian public toward intervening in East Timor the prevailing sense of guilt among the Australian public that Australia had been historically complicit with Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.[21] Indonesia invaded East Timor on December 7, 1975, after having gained approval from Australia and the US in advance.[22] Washington supported Indonesia by blocking the Security Council’s action against Jakarta, since it needed to keep Indonesia as a staunch anti-communist ally in Asia after the fall of a democratic regime in South Vietnam few years earlier.

Notably, Australia had been even more active in keeping good relations with Indonesia than had the US, acknowledging Indonesia’s de jure sovereignty over East Timor in 1979, whereas the US delivered only de facto recognition to Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor.[23] Australia’s stake in its relations with Indonesia was pronounced in the Treaty on the Zone of Cooperation in an Area between the Indonesian Province of East Timor and Northern Australia, also known as the Timor Gap Treaty, signed by the two nations on December 11, 1989.[24] The Treaty provided for the joint development of petroleum resources in the Timor Sea seabed, which were claimed by both signatories. Therefore, the Australian public’s guilt at their government’s historical alliance with Indonesia produced widespread public support for a military intervention.

Despite the intense domestic pressure, Australian politicians remained highly sensitive to Indonesia’s perception of Australian-led military intervention due to various strategic and economic reasons first, hostile relations with Indonesia were considered the worst case scenario for Australia, since guarding the perceived ‘sea-air-land gap’ in the country’s north was dependent on good relations with Indonesia, whose 210 million constituents significantly outnumbered Australia’s 19.5 million.[25] Furthermore, Australia was reaping much financial benefits from the oil wealth in the Timor Sea, which it had jointly been exploiting with Indonesia. Hence, East Timor’s independence from Indonesia would result in preventing Australia from further taking advantage of the oil reserves. Indonesia also could help Australia’s political integration into South East Asia, which the latter had long desired, since Indonesia traditionally had a greater say than many others in the region in the ASEAN fora.[26]

  1. Seeking the Stamp of Approval from the UN and Indonesia

Therefore, despite the domestic pressure that was enthusiastically calling for an immediate action in East Timor, the Howard administration in Canberra insisted upon seeking a Security Council mandate for intervening in East Timor, in order to deal with the international, and particularly Indonesian, accusations that it was pursuing narrowly defined national interests. Hence, Alexander Downer, then Australian foreign minister, visited East Timor on July 30, 1999, and declared Australia’s willingness to consider deploying military forces to a multinational peacekeeping force, under the specific condition that such commitment of forces would be approved by the UN.[27]

However, the Australian government was aware that a UN mandate alone could not bestow a sufficient amount of legitimacy on INTERFET in the eyes of the Indonesians and the other South East Asian nations that suspected Australia’s motive behind the intervention.[28] Thus, the Howard administration insisted upon acquiring the Indonesian government’s assent to having an international force in East Timor before sending troops to the territory. Meanwhile, the IMF provided a timely support to the pressure on Indonesia by suspending economic aid to Jakarta, which had been weakened by the effects of the Asian financial crisis in 1998 and relying heavily on international aid donors.[29]

Such concerted international effort to pressure Indonesia to accede to the INTERFET operation succeeded, in part benefiting from the lack of strong central leadership in Jakarta in the transitional period following the fallout of the power of Suharto, under whose leadership Indonesia had been occupying and severely oppressing East Timor.

Resolution 1264 of September 15, 1999 thus authorized the commitment of an international force to East Timor. The UN mandate effectively turned INTERFET from Australia’s unilateral venture to an international initiative to resolve a “worsening humanitarian situation in East Timor,” as noted in the Resolution. It also strengthened INTERFET’s legitimacy as a multinational force with humanitarian objectives, diluting Australia’s prominent presence in the force by allowing it to recruit a group of states to join.[30]

In sum, the UN mandate delivered through Resolution 1264 and the assent from the Indonesian government laid the groundwork for legitimizing INTERFET as a humanitarian military intervention. Moreover, the subsequent establishment of the ‘coalition of the willing’ and the participation of the regional powers in INTERFET largely enhanced the legitimacy of Australia’s role as the lead state in intervening in East Timor. Therefore, potential regional and international criticism against INTERFET was therefore slashed by the triple-bladed legitimacy mechanisms endowed upon the operation.



INTERFET fulfilled the UN mandate to restore order and security in East Timor and laid the foundation for establishing the independent state of Timor-Leste in 2002. The existing literature on INTERFET describes it as the formula for successful humanitarian intervention.

On the one hand, the UN added to the development of international law, by determining “a threat to peace and security” in East Timor; first, the Security Council renounced the ritualistic custom of determining a threat to “international” peace and security, when a situation is of international concern but does not involve a trans-boundary threat such as in the case of East Timor.[31]

On the other, the core of the operation’s success is the existence of a lead nation with sufficient capability that is not significantly constrained by the necessity to involve many other states as coalition partners in order to acquire the legitimacy of the operation.[32]

Hence in 1999, under the auspices of UN Security Council, Australia successfully introduced a new norm of multinational humanitarian military intervention into the Asia Pacific region.


[1] United Nations, Security Council Resolution 1264 on the Situation in East Timor, (last visited 2nd Jan 2017).

[2] Katharina P. Coleman, International Organizations and Peace Enforcement, Cambridge University Press (2007), at 240.

[3] U.S., Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 107th Congress Second Session Volume 148 Part 7 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2002): 8839.

[4] Supra note 2, at 245.

[5] Ibid.

[6] David Wippman, Change and Continuity in Legal Justifications for Military Interventions in Internal Conflicts, Columbia Human Rights Law Review No. 27 (1994), at 435, 464.

[7] Supra note 2, at 246.

[8] Heike Krieger, ed., East Timor and the International Community: Basic Documents, Cambridge University Press, (1997), at 389.

[9] James Cotton, East Timor, Australia and Regional Order: Intervention and Its Aftermath in Southeast Asia (London; NY: Routledge Curzon, 2004), at 76.

[10] Id. at 246.

[11] Supra note 2, at 247.

[12] See e.g., Security Council Resolution 1264, U.N. SCOR, 54th Session, 4045th meeting, U.N. Doc. S/INF/55 (1999).

[13] Mark Rothert, U.N. Intervention in East Timor, Columbia Journal of Transnational Law No. 39 (2000), at 276.

[14] Tania Voon, Closing the Gap Between Legitimacy and Legality of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from East Timor and Kosovo, UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs No. 7 (2002) at 31, 38.

[15] José Ramos-Horta and Benedict Rogers, Timor-Leste, The United Nations Security Council in the Age of Human Rights, Cambridge University Press (2014), at 330.

[16] Supra note 9, at 73.

[17] Kim Dae Jung, Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia’s Anti-Democratic Values, Foreign Affairs No.73 (Nov/Dec 1994) at 189-94.

[18] Supra note 9, at 73.

[19] Supra note 9, at 73.

[20] Supra note 2, at 257.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Supra note 8.

[23] Supra note 2, at 241.

[24] Francis M. Auburn, David Ong and Vivian L. Forbes, Dispute Resolution and the Timor Gap Treaty, Indian Ocean Centre for Peace Studies, University of Western Australia (1994), at 35.

[25] Supra note 2, at 258.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Supra note 9, at 74.

[28] Supra note 2, at 261.

[29] Joseph Nevins, A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor, Cornell University Press (2005), at 123.

[30] Supra note 2, at 263.

[31] Supra note 13, at 282.

[32] William J. Lahneman, ed. Military Intervention: Cases in Context for the Twenty-First Century, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2004), at 195.

Posted in Spring 2017.