It was my own suggestion to devote most of my talk* to the East Timor crisis since that is the only major occurrence in my two-year tenure to which I have made an identifiable contribution. On the other hand, the East Timor crisis cannot be properly understood without some knowledge of the other big event of 1999, i.e. the Kosovo crisis.

When I ask people in the Netherlands to name a successful United Nations intervention that took place in 1999, they often come up with the Kosovo intervention: the air strikes launched by NATO on March 24 of that year, aimed to drive the Serbian forces from Kosovo and to put an end to the killing and mass expulsion of the province’s civilian population of Albanian descent. The bombing campaign may owe its favourable reputation in this country to the prominent role the Netherlands’ air force played in it, or to the fact that it heralded the demise of Milosevic, here in The Hague of all places, but it is not the correct answer.


First, Kosovo was not a UN intervention. The air strikes were not based on a decision of the Security Council to use force in accordance with Articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter. Quite the reverse. The supporters of the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia had not even bothered to introduce a draft Security Council resolution authorising the intervention. On 23 September 1998, the Security Council had already adopted the binding resolution 1199, which demanded that all parties, groups and individuals immediately cease hostilities and maintain a ceasefire in Kosovo. In its fourth paragraph, the resolution specifically addressed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (or FRY for short, the federation established in 1992 between the two remaining republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Serbia and Montenegro) and demanded that it cease all action by the security forces affecting the civilian population and order the withdrawal of security units used for civilian repression.


China had abstained in the voting on the resolution because it considered the issue an internal matter for the FRY, which was acting within its rights, but Russia had joined its fellow members of the so-called Contact Group in voting in favour. The six-member Contact Group , consisting, apart from Russia, of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany, had been created in September 1997 calling on the authorities in Belgrade and the leadership of the Kosovar Albanian community to join in a peaceful dialogue. The fact that in voting for resolution 1199 Russia had sided with the five NATO members with which it shared the Contact Group, was initially considered a blow for Milosevic, but it soon became apparent that the FRY blatantly ignored the resolution. A month later, on 25 October 1998, the Security Council adopted an even stronger resolution (1203), again binding, that is: “acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter”, but this time Russia ultimately joined China in abstaining, and the resolution was adopted with 13 votes in favour, none against and two abstentions. The Russians, while making no secret of their own exasperation with Milosevic’s obstinacy, indicated they would veto any resolution authorising the use of force.

Under these circumstances, the NATO states had preferred to launch the strikes first and defend them in the Security Council afterwards. This had been a difficult choice because in the realm of vetoes nothing ever happens automatically. Casting a veto is no small matter, and every permanent member will always go to great lengths to avoid it. Russia would clearly not have voted in favour of a resolution authorising the air strikes, but it might conceivably have abstained, in which case China might have been reluctant to veto it alone. However, most NATO states considered a Russian veto unavoidable and therefore favoured the strikes-first option. Some of them, including the Netherlands, feared it might be much more difficult to obtain parliamentary approval for the air strikes – let alone participation in them – if an authorising draft resolution had first been tabled and then vetoed.

Since, consequently, there was nothing to be vetoed, Russia introduced a draft resolution of its own, condemning NATO’s armed intervention as a flagrant violation of the UN Charter. The five NATO states represented in the Security Council (US, UK, France, Canada and the Netherlands) opposed the Russian draft on the grounds that their experience over the past six months had convinced them that the NATO air strikes were the only way of deterring Milosevic from his campaign of ethnic cleansing by killing or expelling Albanians from Kosovo. This was more or less the common theme of the five statements, but in the one from the Netherlands I criticised Russia in what the New York Times somewhat hyperbolically described as “one of the harshest attacks on the resolution’s cosponsors”. I told the Council that in October 1998, the adoption of Security Council resolution 1203, which demanded the full and prompt implementation of all agreements between the FRY and both OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and NATO, had been greeted with relief in the Netherlands, because it was felt that with all the pressure applied on Belgrade in that resolution, it should at last be possible to make President Milosevic see reason and accept a peaceful solution to the problem of Kosovo. Being aware of its strong commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the FRY, the Netherlands had been grateful to Russia for having contributed to the pressure on the Yugoslav leadership. Since then, however, at every critical junction Russia had somehow succeeded in making the pressure less credible, so that in the end NATO had had no choice but to use force.

The Russian proposal was rejected, with only Russia, China and Namibia voting in favour, and the other twelve members voting against.

While thus the intervention could not be further removed from what one might call ‘a UN intervention’, it could not easily be called a successful intervention either. When it began, NATO secretary-general Solana expected it to be a matter of three or four days of bombing, after which Yugoslavia would have no choice but to negotiate a political solution. Milosevic, however, turned out to be well prepared for the NATO intervention and immediately intensified his campaign of repression and expulsion, more than doubling the number of refugees and virtually emptying all major towns, such as Pristina, of Albanians. There was irrefutable evidence that since the launch of the NATO air strikes Serbian terror against Kosovo Albanians had not decreased but increased. It was clear that Milosevic had seized the opportunity to carry through a sort of ‘final solution’ to the Kosovo Albanian problem. That was, of course, not caused by us, but it could not be denied that our intervention had initially led to a worsening of the situation.


Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. March 1999 (bron: UN Photo)

Another disturbing fact was that early in the conflict NATO had directed its aircraft to fly above 15,000 feet to protect aircraft and pilots from FRY air defences. This direction attracted widespread criticism as it was alleged that it would not permit the aircrew to adequately distinguish between military and civilian objects on the ground. And indeed, this repeatedly turned out to be the case. On several occasions NATO aircraft accidentally attacked convoys of unarmed refugees. The worst such incident, which allegedly killed 87 Albanian refugees, took place on May 14 near Korisa. Even in this case, the cause could not be determined with absolute certainty at the time because Serbian police were known to have developed a knack of deliberately steering Albanian refugee convoys into harm’s way.

In New York, the Korisa tragedy left the delegations of NATO countries with a feeling of despondency that could not be offset by the flow of positive information on the achievement of NATO’s strategic objective of damaging Serbia’s capacity to wage war against Kosovo in the future or spread the war to its neighbours.

Yet, a week later, on May 22, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia indicted Milosevic for crimes against humanity, and twelve days after that, on June 3, he abruptly agreed to the demands of the international community.

Less than a week later the Kosovo intervention was over. It had been far less glorious than many of my compatriots even now like to believe, but on balance I still think it was justified. Milosevic had to be deterred from engineering a grand-scale Srebrenica, a rerun of the massacre of Moslems by Serbs as had taken place in 1995 under the very eyes of UN peacekeepers from the Netherlands. He had to be stopped, and the Russians would not do it for us. In that sense NATO’s intervention was a success, even if it could not be considered to be in conformity with the UN Charter.

East Timor

Less than three months after the Kosovo crisis came to an end, a somewhat similar crisis erupted in East Timor. East Timor had been a Portuguese colony for almost four centuries when in the wake of the so-called Carnation revolution of 1974, Portugal began to shed its colonies. Decolonisation proceeded swiftly in Africa, but in East Timor Lisbon was more hesitant. On 28 November 1975 the leftist resistance movement FRETILIN unilaterally declared independence, but nine days later, on 7 December 1975, Indonesia launched a full-scale invasion of the territory. On 17 July 1976, it annexed East Timor under the banner of anti-colonialism, declaring the territory its 27th province. The United Nations did not recognize this annexation, and the territory’s nominal status in the UN system remained that of a “non-self-governing territory under Portuguese administration”.

Indonesia’s rule of East Timor was marked by violence and brutality. It led to years of massive death and devastation as well as economic desperation, social dislocation and forced resettlement. Responsibility for this woeful state of affairs rested with the Suharto regime, which lasted until 21 May 1998. On that day, a severely discredited Suharto resigned and, in accordance with the constitution, was succeeded by his deputy Habibie.


That East Timor was destined to be part of Indonesia was not a matter of course for all Indonesians. Sukarno had never claimed control over East Timor as it had never been part of the Netherlands East Indies. Within a month after his accession to the presidency, Habibie announced that his government would grant East Timor autonomy. It was generally felt that he sought to lend the Indonesian presence in East Timor an air of legitimacy by offering the East Timorese a say in their political future. Indonesia was suffering from the Asian financial crisis and hoped to secure funding from the international community, particularly the International Monetary Fund. The East Timorese were not taken in and demanded a genuine referendum to be supervised by the United Nations.

On 27 January 1999, Habibie surprised even his own cabinet ministers by announcing that East Timor would be granted full independence if it rejected the autonomy offer. After this announcement, the security situation in East Timor worsened even further, but on the other hand, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan saw here an opportunity for the UN to play a valuable role since no major power had a strategic interest in the dispute. With a view to thrashing out these ideas, the UN put together a negotiating process that included the Portuguese and the Indonesians and that was meant to result in a ‘popular consultation’ at some point in 1999. On 5 May 1999 these negotiations resulted in an agreement, signed by the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Portugal and witnessed by the UN Secretary-General , which spelled out the rules of procedure for the popular consultation. In essence, the East Timorese would be asked to either accept or reject “the proposed constitutional framework for special autonomy”. ‘Accept’ would mean autonomy within Indonesia, ‘reject’ would mean independence. I point this out because the division is counterintuitive. For all East Timorese this consultation was about independence. That was what they wanted and were eager to accept. Fortunately, the ballot papers prepared by the UN were clear enough: with the ‘accept’ logo above and the ‘reject’ logo below, the document contained two maps of East Timor, but in the ‘accept’ version the red-and-white flag of Indonesia was firmly planted on the ground.

Once the three ‘parties’, i.e. Indonesia, Portugal and the UN Secretary-General, had agreed to hold the popular consultations on Monday August 30, Timorese militias backed by the Indonesian military began to intensify their lawless activities aimed at intimidating the local population. All through August the atmosphere grew more menacing by the day, but the actual day of the popular consultation passed in comparative quiet. The most likely cause of this unexpected lull in the fighting was that the military leadership was confident that by then the pro-independence forces had been so intimidated by the heavily reinforced militias that many East Timorese would make the best of a bad bargain and, although reluctantly, would vote in favour of integration.

The East Timor crisis as dealt with by the Netherlands presidency of the Security Council

I assumed the presidency of the Security Council at midnight between August 31 and September 1. The referendum in East Timor had taken place two days earlier and the results were not expected for another two days. Hence, for the first two days of my presidency, my work had nothing to do with East Timor. As I returned from a lunch with Dutch journalists on Friday September 3, I was informed that the Secretary-General would be in a position to announce the outcome of the popular consultation to the Security Council in the evening.

At 9 pm, I opened the formal meeting of the Security Council, to which I had also invited the permanent representatives of Indonesia and Portugal, in order to provide the Secretary-General with an appropriate setting to announce the official result of the ballot. In a brief speech the Secretary-General informed the Security Council that 21.5{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} of the votes had been cast for autonomy and 78.5{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} against. The people of East Timor had thus rejected the proposed special autonomy and expressed their wish to begin a process of transition towards independence. The Secretary-General assured the people of the territory that the United Nations would not fail them in guiding East Timor in this transition. I thanked the Secretary-General and adjourned the meeting, which had lasted exactly ten minutes.

In East Timor, where it was 12 hours later, massive violence erupted within hours. Militia groups launched a sweeping punitive scorched-earth expedition against the pro-independence majority; there was widespread burning of houses, hundreds of people were killed, and much of East Timor’s infrastructure was destroyed.

From this point onward I will focus on the way the Netherlands presidency of the Security Council dealt with the East Timor crisis in September 1999. But first, perhaps superfluously, a few words about the role of the Security Council presidency in general. The presidency rotates monthly among the members of the Security Council. The rotation takes place in alphabetical order of the member states’ names in English. There is no distinction between the five permanent and the ten elected members: all presidents have the same prerogatives. The Security Council assembles either in formal meetings in the familiar Security Council Chamber, or in informal consultations in the Security Council consultations room, which in our days was austere and crammed but was revamped and refurbished last year, courtesy of the Russian Federation. On both locations, the members of the Council sit in clockwise alphabetical order. In 1999 and 2000, the Netherlands therefore invariably sat between Namibia and Russia.

During my two-year tenure, the Netherlands held the presidency in September 1999 and November 2000. As the Netherlands had joined the Security Council on 1 January 1999 I had the advantage of being able to observe eight very different presidencies at work and gently learn the ropes. What surprised me most was the extreme courtesy, even deference, with which the Council treated each of its presidents. I could not remember, or even imagine, any Dutch political body where the chairperson could count on such cooperative behaviour. I found it attractive because I like good manners, but it immediately occurred to me that this phenomenon amounted to a considerable augmentation of the power of the president. When my turn came in September, I had not forgotten!


East Timor: return of internally displaced, October 1999 (bron: UN Photo)

I now return to my account of the East Timor Crisis, which I had interrupted at the outbreak of violence that had followed the announcement of the ballot results. The following day, September 4, was the first day of the Labor Day weekend and many people had left New York. I got a telephone call from my Portuguese colleague, António Monteiro, who requested that I call a meeting of the Security Council right away. I have no notes on that conversation, which took place more than fourteen years ago, but I believe that in the end we discussed both options: that I call a formal meeting, or that I assemble the Council in informalconsultations. The first option I dismissed out of hand. A formal meeting of the Council during the Labor Day weekend could only yield a spectacular demonstration of the fact that at this stage the Security Council had nothing to offer but yet another fruitless appeal to the government of Indonesia to carry out its responsibility to maintain law and order in the territory. I did not entirely rule out my convening the Council in consultations in the next two days, but I did not want the Council to be pressured into aimless activism. It should assemble just to express indignation at what was happening in East Timor. The world was waiting to hear what the Security Council was going to do.

It so happened that less than a week earlier, on Monday August 30, Under-Secretary-General Prendergast, the head of the Department of Political Affairs, had observed – I do not recall on what occasion – that in the past the Security Council had been more disposed to send a mission (consisting of a number of Council members) to a troubled country. In the early 1990s there had been several missions mainly to African countries, but for the last four years none at all. It might be an idea to breathe new life into this institution, depending on the outcome of the popular consultation and the reactions of the parties to it. On that occasion I had the impression that the US and the UK in particular were not very attracted by the idea, but on Sunday September 5 I learned that at least these two delegations were now prepared to discuss the advisability of a possible mission to Jakarta. This prompted me to convene the Council for informal consultations at 5 pm.

I began those consultations by exploring to what extent all members of the Council could agree on the facts. I had gained the impression that there was more common ground on this question than normally was the case with Chapter VII issues (concerning action with respect to threats to the peace). To try this out, I submitted what I thought had to be our basic assumption: As under the terms of the May 5 Agreement Indonesia continued to be responsible for security until the formal transfer of sovereignty, it was clear that Indonesia had to be persuaded to either rein in the militias itself, or ask for military assistance in restoring peace and security in East Timor.

It was relatively easy to reach consensus on the first option, provided the appeal to Jakarta was couched in sufficiently courteous terms. The second option, however, smacked of humanitarian intervention. Several delegations, such as Russia, China, Malaysia and Bahrain, made it clear they would not tolerate any outside military deployment not explicitly authorised by Indonesia. They were convinced member states that might be prepared to participate in such a deployment shared that view. It was mentioned that Australia, which had placed two Army brigades on standby, had declared it would not act without a specific Security Council mandate.

I concluded that there was no disagreement on this point. Instead, there appeared to be a consensus which I summarised as follows:
– there would be no Security Council mandate without Indonesian consent;
– there would be no outside military deployment without a Security Council mandate.

This left the Council with narrow but at least clear terms of reference. I felt at any rate that they were broad enough for me to propose that the Security Council dispatch a five-member mission to Jakarta (one third of the Council) “to discuss with the Government of Indonesia concrete steps to allow the peaceful implementation of the ballot result”.

The reactions were generally positive, and I was just going to declare the proposal accepted when at least three members of the Council remonstrated with me that it would be inappropriate for the Council to make such a decision before having ascertained that the Indonesian government agreed to receive the mission. I was taken aback by this development because it might take days to obtain such an agreement from Jakarta. People were dying in East Timor, and every delay would cause a greater loss of life.

Luckily, my Indonesian colleague had just been spotted in the Delegates’ Lounge, so I quickly suspended the consultations and asked my deputy, Alphons Hamer, to invite Ambassador Wibisono to come to the office of the Security Council President, next to our consultations room. There I explained the Security Council mission plan to him, adding that before proceeding with the plan some members of the Council would like to have an assurance that the mission would be received by the Indonesian government. As Wibisono was immediately ready to help I offered him the run of my desk and my telephone, and before long he was able to tell me that the mission was welcome in Jakarta and would be received by both Foreign Minister Alatas and President Habibie. After reopening the consultations I assured my colleagues that Jakarta was in agreement at the highest level, and the Council decided to dispatch the mission.

The green light from Jakarta had been obtained so promptly that I was not fully prepared for what had to be done next. I then realised we had not yet spoken about the composition of the mission, and I hastily racked my brains for an elegant way of avoiding that. There would surely be more than five candidates, and the debate on who should drop out would easily take a whole day. But since there had not been a Security Council mission for years, there were neither readily available rules nor delegates who could invoke established customs. I therefore casually treated the selection of the five members as a procedural matter, which should be left to the discretion of the Council president. I was surprised to get away with this and swiftly wound up the consultations by thanking everybody and expressing the hope that the Secretariat would use all its ingenuity to get the mission on its way as quickly as possible. There was a sense of relief and even excitement that seemed to discourage my colleagues from raising any last-minute objections.

The following morning, on Monday September 6 (Labor Day at last), I appointed the five members of the mission: my colleagues of Namibia (Martin Andjaba), the United Kingdom (Jeremy Greenstock), Malaysia (Hasmy Agam) and Slovenia (Danilo Türk), as well as my aforementioned deputy Alphons Hamer. I was surprised – but tried not to show it – that each member of the Council found it normal that I did so on my own authority. There were three permanent representatives who later admitted to me they would have liked to be on the mission themselves, but none of them gave the slightest hint that they felt I should have handled this differently.

In the late afternoon that same day, the mission was briefed by the Secretary-General in his office on the 38th floor and left for Indonesia a few hours later. As it took almost a whole day for the mission to reach Jakarta, there was no East Timor on the Council’s agenda on Tuesday 7th, but on Wednesday 8th I received a letter from the permanent representative of Portugal who, on instructions of his government, requested an urgent meeting of the Security Council on the situation in East Timor. My first reaction was that such a meeting at this stage would interfere with the delicate work of our mission, which was to prevail upon Indonesia to consent to the deployment of an international force. But as the Council was currently engrossed in the evacuation of UNAMET, the UN Mission in East Timor, that was about to be relocated to Darwin, Australia, the Portuguese letter did not attract much attention, and since there was no procedural obligation for me to call the requested meeting I left it pending for the time being.

Less than a day later, though, on September 9, I received a similar letter from the permanent representative of Brazil, but since that country was a member of the Security Council I had to heed Rule 2 of the Security Council’s rules of procedure, reading: “The President shall call a meeting of the Security Council at the request of any member of the Security Council.” Brazil was more demanding in its letter than Portugal had been. It was of the opinion “that the formal meeting should take the form of an open debate and should be convened with the necessary urgency”. I consulted most members of the Council and found a near-consensus that it would not be correct procedure to dispatch a mission to Indonesia to discuss a certain question and then call an open meeting on that same question before the mission had had time to return and report. At first I tended to agree with this, but then I began to pick up snippets of information on the discussions about East Timor that were going on at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Auckland. As an economic forum, APEC does not normally discuss political or security issues, but on September 9, Foreign Ministers had met in the margins of the Summit to discuss the East Timor crisis. Russia and China had also been represented at that gathering. The option of having an international force restore peace and security in East Timor had been openly discussed, and all present had agreed that this would require the Indonesian government’s consent. It was felt that, with Indonesian agreement, Security Council authorisation for a multinational force was achievable.

I decided to raise the matter of the open Security Council meeting again. The only thing such a meeting could do that the APEC Summit could not, was to show Jakarta how isolated Indonesia had become in the Third World. Its 24-year occupation of East Timor had caused great damage to the country’s international reputation. The time was past when in the eyes of the Third World the illustrious country of Sukarno, the Bandung Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement, could do no wrong.

I did not use that argument with my colleagues on the Council but simply warned that the Security Council risked being overtaken in political relevance by the APEC Summit. Some of them maintained that the meeting should not be called before the mission had returned, but in the end it was agreed that I could go ahead if the mission itself saw no objection. I called the Head of the mission, Namibian Ambassador Andjaba, and asked him to consult the other members. A few hours later he let me know that the whole mission continued to feel I should not call the open meeting until the mission was back in New York.

On Friday September 10, at 4 pm, I reported the mission’s view to the Security Council but added that, also bearing in mind Brazil’s formal request, I had nevertheless decided to call an open meeting of the Security Council for Saturday September 11, beginning at 11 am. A few colleagues said they were not happy with my decision, but none questioned my right to make it.

The open meeting lasted for more than seven hours. In his opening statement the Secretary-General urged Indonesia to agree without further delay to the deployment of an international force. After him, the representatives of 52 UN member states took the floor. In varying degrees of openness, almost all of them criticised the way Indonesia had dealt with the East Timor crisis. I was captivated by this ‘open meeting’ because it revealed itself as an effective Name-and-Shame tool which was not intended to culminate in a resolution and was therefore impervious to a veto. It was like a perfect gauge of world opinion, and I felt it might be further developed and perfected in the future.

From here on, everything happened very quickly. We learned that on Sunday September 12 (because of the time difference it may still have been Saturday 11 in New York) President Habibie had announced to the press that he had informed the UN Secretary-General of Indonesia’s readiness to accept international peacekeeping forces through the United Nations from friendly nations to restore peace and security in East Timor, to protect the people and to implement the results of the direct ballot of 30 August 1999. Shortly after this announcement, the Council mission had had a final meeting with the President and was expected back in New York by Tuesday September 14.

…..What had done the trick?

During the weekend, I pondered the question of what had actually done the trick. At first I was tempted to attach great importance to the marathon open meeting the Security Council had just concluded, but that temptation was short-lived. Several other factors had clearly played a more critical role: the Australian Army brigades on standby, the Council mission to Indonesia and especially its visit to Dili with General Wiranto, and the APEC Summit in Auckland with everything around it.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former United States President Clinton; both played a significant role in the solution of the problems in East Timor. Independence day of the new nation, 20 May 2002 (bron: UN Photo)

It dawned on me that the open meeting of the Security Council could never have been a decisive factor because it took place on the day everything else was already happening, both militarily and economically. On September 11, President Clinton suspended all US-Indonesian military assistance programmes in response to the violence and destruction in East Timor. On the same day he made the following statement: “I have made clear that my willingness to support future economic assistance from the international community will depend upon how Indonesia handles the situation from today.” On Sunday September 12 President Habibie expressed Indonesia’s readiness to accept international peacekeeping forces in East Timor. He did so by telephone to the UN Secretary-General, with whom he had been in direct contact since the tripartite negotiations that led to the May 5 Agreement. That clearly was the appropriate channel for such an announcement of global consequence, but it was also clear that it was not the United Nations – neither the Secretary-General nor the Security Council – that had tipped the scales. It was solely President Clinton’s statement ending with the pointed words ‘from today’ that had clinched the matter.

Tuesday September14 was meant to be the day when the hard-fought resolution authorising the establishment of the force was adopted. The Security Council gathered for consultations at 4:30 pm, and I expected plane sailing for a change, since every delegation seemed happy with the outcome. We had before us a British draft resolution concerning the establishment of a multinational force under a unified command structure and authorising the States participating in it “to take all necessary measures to fulfil this mandate”. Most of you will be familiar with the words ‘all necessary measures’; they refer to article 42 of the UN Charter and are short for military action (they are the words that were sorely missing in resolution 1441 on the eve of the invasion of Iraq).

There was almost a festive mood, as though we had scored a victory, and I heard several people around me express the hope that this historic resolution would be adopted unanimously. Then some delegations began asking for minor amendments to the draft, and British Ambassador Greenstock, who was the senior member of the Security Council mission to Indonesia and now spoke for the sponsors, was very accommodating and either quickly accepted each proposed amendment or suggested a better compromise. I do not remember any of those amendments, but none seemed to be of any practical consequence that I could see. This procedure did not bother me at first, but each time we had agreed on some minor changes, I had to suspend the consultations to allow a number of delegations to contact their capitals to get instructions, and because of the various time differences that could take up to two hours. Apart from me, everyone seemed prepared to accept this inconvenience if it would enable us to adopt the resolution unanimously. When this had happened a few times and midnight was approaching, I heard somebody suggest we adjourn our consultations and resume them calm and refreshed the following day. That brought me to my senses. People were still dying in East Timor, and it would be unforgivable if the Council’s ambition to achieve unanimous adoption of this resolution should lead to further delay in the deployment of the international force. I said my aim was to have the resolution adopted as soon as possible and any wish for unanimous adoption had to be secondary to that. I allowed two more irrelevant amendments to be submitted to capitals and ruled that the consultations were suspended until 2 am, when the current text including the two latest amendments would be put to the vote without debate.

Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council authorized the establishment of a multinational force in East Timor, New York 15 September 1999. Alexander Downer, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Australia, addresses the Council (bron: UN Photo)

I heard some grumbles but went home to get something to eat. It bothered me that we had missed the midnight deadline so that the resolution would not be adopted on September 14, as everyone had expected of us. I had been serious about not aiming for unanimity but wondered whether any delegation would dare abstain on such a momentous resolution. At 2 am the consultations were duly resumed and it turned out that all 15 members were ready to vote in favour. We went straight to the Security Council Chamber, where the Foreign Ministers of Portugal, Indonesia and Australia (Gama, Alatas and Downer) were already present as guests of the Council. I called the meeting to order at 2:15 am, the resolution was unanimously adopted as Security Council resolution 1264 (1999), only the guests of the Council made statements, and the meeting was over at 2:55 am.

The Australian-led multinational force was subsequently baptised INTERFET (International Force for East Timor). It began deploying to East Timor on September 20, breaking all records (so I have been told) for speed of deployment of a Security Council-authorised force.

The Kosovo and East Timor interventions compared

The two humanitarian interventions of 1999, Kosovo and East Timor, have been extensively evaluated and compared with each other. There always is a temptation to consider Kosovo a deplorable aberration and East Timor a shining example of the way it should be done. That would be wrong: Kosovo might even be closer to the norm. As long as there are permanent members with the right of veto (and there always will be), there is no sure way of making Security Council pressure stick. Due to the right of veto, permanent members can first comfortably vote for the most imperative and binding Chapter VII resolutions and then block any further steps when such resolutions are flouted by the country to which they are addressed. This is why Security Council-mandated military action is not, and can never be, the only legitimate instrument for humanitarian intervention. Kosovo was normal. The starting point in East Timor was abnormally favourable because the nucleus of the intervention force was already available (2,000 Australian troops ready to move within 12 hours), and the crisis coincided both with the APEC Summit in Auckland and the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York. We are more likely to see another Kosovo than another East Timor. And that is no tragedy. A successful unauthorised intervention by a coalition of the willing is better than an international community turning a blind eye to systematic violations of human rights.

In this imperfect world, authorised and unauthorised interventions each have their role to play. In September 1999, the fact that Kosovo had happened so recently may have been an important reason why in East Timor, intervention without a specific Security Council mandate was no option for anyone. Thanks to the dubious legality of the intervention in Kosovo, it had been possible to solve the East Timor crisis in unchallenged conformity with international law.

 *This article is an edited text of a speech delivered by Mr Van Walsum on 18 February 2014 in The Hague on the Dutch presidency of the UN Security Council in September 1999. 

Peter van Walsum

Peter van Walsum

worked for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1963 to 2001. He served a.o. as permanent representative to the United Nations in New York, representing the Netherlands on the Security Council in 1999 and 2000.