It is we who are to blame for the UN failure in East Timor

You didn't need to be a rocket scientist to see what might happen when the referendum was held
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MAYBE APOCALYPSE can yet be avoided in East Timor. Maybe, as the Australian foreign minister blithely speculated at the weekend, the fury of the militia mobs will subside of its own accord. Maybe the Indonesian army will call off its licensed assassins, calculating that it has made its point to other parts of the turbulent country that may be contemplating a bid for independence.

Maybe huge international pressure - not least the threat of suspension of financial support from the IMF - may persuade the government in Jakarta to relent and allow some form of armed peacekeeping force into the territory. And even if it doesn't, who knows, maybe the peacekeepers will go in anyway, driven by an irresistible, worldwide clamour to "do something". For East Timor is also a typical late-20th- century foreign crisis where diplomacy is fuelled as much by instant media-driven emotion as by sober assessments of consequences.

But, in one sense, whatever happens it is already too late. Not just for the hundreds of East Timorese who have been murdered, or for the tens of thousands who have been driven from their burning homes, but for all of us. This is a shaming moment for that weighty but nebulous entity known as "the international community". The blame attaches not so much to the United Nations, manifestly unable to protect the outcome of the independence referendum it sponsored, as to the governments of the major powers, among them Britain, who ultimately decide what the UN should and should not do.

Hindsight, famously, is 20/20. So let us leave aside the question of whether it was wise in the first place to grant independence to one half of a single island in an archipelago of 13,000 islands that make up a vast but desperately unstable nation. Let us make due allowance, too, for the difficulty of reading the mind of the Indonesian military, humbled since the fall of President Suharto, but even now the most powerful national institution in a chaotic country groping towards a more democratic form of rule.

These considerations are important, but no longer relevant. All that matters is that the referendum was held, albeit under an agreement giving the Indonesian authorities responsibility for security during the campaign and the subsequent transition period before independence. The UN accepted the deal on the assumption that the more reformist government in Jakarta, which had surprisingly offered the referendum (in full awareness of the likely result), could be trusted to maintain law and order as it unfolded.

The assumption, however, was always naive; twice already, voting had been postponed because of threats of disruption. You didn't need to be diplomacy's equivalent of a rocket scientist to foresee what might happen when it was held. Quite plainly, the "international community" now has an overwhelming moral obligation to intervene.

Equally clearly, the Security Council in New York did not have a contingency plan stretching beyond hope and prayer. The UN is now paying for the omission with what remains of its dwindling credibility.

For we have been round this course several times in the last decade. There was Somalia, where the UN went into the business of nation-building without possessing the tools for the task. There was Bosnia, where a wholly inadequate UN force was sent in to keep a peace that did not exist. And there was Rwanda in 1994, where no one intervened to prevent a genocide that even the dispatch of a small force would probably have thwarted.

But the true fault on these occasions did not lie with the UN, but with the member states who decide what it may do - first and foremost, the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The UN's long failure in Bosnia reflected the equally long disagreement among the big Western powers over what to do. The failure in Rwanda was brought about by the refusal of the US, the biggest power of them all, to admit that genocide was even taking place.

And so to East Timor. Ah, we are told, the UN cannot send an armed force against the wishes of the Indonesian government, because China would veto it. Australia, meanwhile, the obvious leader of a smaller-scale operation mounted by a "coalition of the willing" from the region, is nervous of doing anything that might offend its vastly more populous northern neighbour. As the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, put it at the weekend: "No one is going to fight their way ashore." If only such honesty had been forthcoming earlier. For the calamity of East Timor proves nothing so much as the fondness of the "international community" for double talk and double standards.

Why intervention in Kosovo, but not East Timor (or Chechnya, or Tibet, for that matter)? Everyone knows the answer, even if our leaders dare not say it: that Yugoslavia was a medium-sized and friendless country, which Nato could safely attack without even bothering to secure UN approval beforehand. Not so the nuclear powers Russia and China ,or even Indonesia, the biggest fish in the South-East Asian pool; the "international community" is well aware that taking them on might cause global turmoil. Today's UNmission to Jakarta is unlikely, therefore, to have Indonesia's generals trembling in their boots.

Nor would even the existence of a standing UN army make much difference in practice. Let the supranationalists dream. But armies, like diplomats, require instructions. And short of a quite unimaginable collective surrender of national sovereignty to the Secretary General, command of a specifically UN military force would in practice be as unwieldy as decision-making on the Security Council. The real crime is to arouse false hopes - and Britain is as guilty of this as anyone.

The UN is an imperfect instrument, but it's the best that is available. Alas, it is also one that peculiarly lends itself to moral grandstanding. Ten weeks ago, in the aftermath of Kosovo, Mr Cook announced that Britain was putting up to 8,000 troops on permanent standby to the UN. All talk of overstretching our depleted armed forces was brushed aside; these would be front-line, rapid-reaction units, we were told, boosting the UN's ability to mount emergency peace-keeping operations around the world.

But when precisely such an emergency arises, it transpires that we have nothing available. Thus are expectations raised, only to run aground on the reality of a debacle such as East Timor. For it we have not the UN, but ourselves, to blame.