The United Nations has already failed East Timor once, by allowing the Indonesian authorities to retain sole responsibility for policing in the lead-up to and following this week's referendum on independence for the territory, which was invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975.
Only unarmed UN observers have been present in the territory in recent weeks, so that these UN representatives have found themselves in the role of victims of militia violence, rather than being protectors. That was a grave error.
Now, the Indonesian government seems ready to hand over the running of East Timor to the United Nations. A military spokesman said yesterday that it would be "logical" for a UN force to be present in East Timor when the Indonesians leave. A minister said that a UN presence "has to be considered". That is at least a start.
The problem is, however, urgent if a potential bloodbath is to be avoided. If the Indonesian police are left in charge, then the problems will not be solved. The results of the referendum - certain to be in favour of independence - will become public next week. When that happens, the violence may get even worse.
The United Nations has repeatedly discovered that intervening in other people's problems can turn out to offer a poisoned chalice. But it would make no sense, now that we have got so far, for the rest of the world to ignore what comes next. If the Timorese have deserved to be supported during their long struggle to end the occupation, it would be nonsensical and absurdly cruel to abandon them now.
In the meantime, the British invitation to the Indonesian government to attend the forthcoming arms fair in Chertsey must be revoked. This would be only a tiny gesture. But the failure to make even this small gesture, instead of the weasel words that we have heard from the Government in recent days, is an offence to those innocent Timorese who are daily being murdered.Reuse content