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“Orphans” or Veterans?: Justice for Children Born of War in East Timor
Texas International Law Journal (2007)
  • Susan Harris Rimmer

All over East Timor, one can find “orphans” whose parents still live, and “wives” who have never been married. These labels mask an open secret in Timorese society—hundreds of children were born of rape during the Indonesian occupation from 1974 to 1999. As a result of the United Nations Population Fund’s 2004 census, data is finally available on the current population of East Timor. This has unexpectedly revealed a baby boom, perhaps in response to the emotional losses of the occupation. The fertility rate was found to be one of the highest in the world, at 6.1 babies per woman.1 Babies have become the symbol of both wounds and healing in Timor. Nonetheless, official silence continues on the number and the treatment of the children born of conflict. The transitional justice mechanisms put in place in Timor to address the human rights violations have paid inadequate attention to the plight of these children. No official policies are in place to deal with the needs of these children or their mothers, or to combat the discrimination they may face. The challenges these children and women pose to the social fabric of Timor reveals important gaps and silences within the international human rights law framework. These gaps could be addressed by some fairly straightforward policy innovations. I argue that the status of the mothers socially and legally impacts the well-being and ability of their children to claim their rights, and must be more fully addressed in transitional justice debates. There is ambivalence in East Timor towards the idea of these women contributing to independence during the occupation, and discomfort regarding their status as so-called “wives” of members of the Indonesian military. This cultural construction is exacerbated and challenged by the ambivalent influence of Catholic teachings on East Timorese society. However, social currents exist that, if used strategically to reconstruct the image of these children and women, could reframe their trauma in transitional justice discourse. Such a reframing would contribute both to their well-being and the long-term process of reconciliation in East Timor. The paper proceeds in three sections. First, I provide an overview of the situation of sexual violence survivors and their children in East Timor. In the second section, I discuss current approaches to the children and their mothers within the transitional justice mechanisms available in East Timor at this time. I aim to shift the current approach to children born of war in Timor from covert welfare assistance by the Catholic Church and NGOs, to a rights-based framework, in which the affected children would be publicly accepted as having valid claims before the Government, rather than seen as by-products of a crime or sin. From this analysis it becomes clear that creative policy and legal options, which would assist these families with integration, status, and financial security, are required. I conclude with one such proposal to improve the situation of these families: recharacterize the affected women and their children as “veterans” of the conflict, with the same status as the former Falantil guerrillas.

Publication Date
Citation Information
Susan Harris Rimmer. "“Orphans” or Veterans?: Justice for Children Born of War in East Timor" Texas International Law Journal Vol. 42 Iss. 2 (2007)
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