Leading Article: Britain should support intervention in Timor

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The Independent Culture
SHOULD BRITAIN - or the European Union - intervene militarily in order to avert a catastrophe in East Timor?

There can be no doubt that the situation there meets the criteria of the Blair doctrine for intervention, which the Prime Minister set out during the Kosovo conflict. The case is clear; there is no diplomatic alternative. There are "military operations we can prudently and sensibly undertake": to protect the lives of United Nations personnel and to restrain the lawlessness of the anti-independence paramilitaries. Another of Blair's tests was: "Are we prepared for the long term?" The international community certainly should be; an independent East Timor is a sustainable entity, supported by its people, and Indonesia now lacks the power to frustrate it. Finally, Blair asked, "Do we have national interests involved?" Well, no, we do not, beyond a general interest in the rule of international law and the stability of trade. But the Netherlands and Portugal have responsibilities as former colonial powers, and Australia has an interest in regional stability. The UN has a mandate as a guarantor of last week's referendum, and has never recognised Indonesia's annexation of the territory in 1975.

Britain therefore does have a role, in the European Union, in the Commonwealth and at the UN. We should be supportive, driving forward the logic of action, though it should primarily be for others to supply the military forces needed to protect UN personnel and keep the peace while East Timor moves towards independence.

It is a shame that the question is being asked so late; the timing of the referendum - and the need to police it - was hardly decided at the last minute.

So far, the Blair Government's role in South East Asia has been as much to assist those who were part of the problem, as to be part of the solution. It pursued a policy of "constructive engagement" with the odious Suharto regime, selling Hawk aircraft even as the Indonesian tyranny was brought down by a popular uprising. It may be late and little to send the destroyer HMS Glasgow to East Timor, but it is not too late to atone for that failure. We can still do what we can to support military intervention, preferably under the UN banner, to ensure that the overwhelming vote for independence - cast under UN auspices - is respected.

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