Indonesia’s scorched-earth compliance with international pressure on East Timor has left Dili, the capital, in ruins, displaced some 100,000 people to refugee camps under the control of the brutal militias and threatened thousands of people hiding in the mountains with starvation. Although Indonesian President B.J. Habibie and General Wiranto agreed to accept a United Nations peacekeeping force because of belated US pressure, anti-independence militias and their patrons in the Indonesian armed forces show no inclination to end their vicious reign of terror.

An indicator of how slightly Habibie’s promise of cooperation has penetrated Indonesian military ranks was the detention of Nation correspondent Allan Nairn, grabbed from Dili’s ruined streets by a gang of militiamen and turned over to the army. Nairn’s detention is the most recent in a series of attacks on reporters that began in August, part of an attempt to carry on the evisceration of East Timor without troublesome witnesses. Nairn said to us shortly before his arrest that the whole peacekeeper debate was “a diversion. It’s not as if there were unruly forces. The violence is all controlled from the top. Wiranto can shut it down with one phone call.” US strategy seems to be to apply just enough pressure to take East Timor off the global front burner so the economic and military relationship with Jakarta can be repaired.

Assuming that Habibie and Wiranto do not renege on their commitments, the international community must immediately disarm the militias, protect the Timorese in Indonesian camps and airdrop food and medical supplies. The UN, if it is to recover the credibility with Timorese that it lost when it couldn’t secure the referendum results, must appoint trustees from among its member nations to move East Timor swiftly to full independence. The UN should also endorse High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson’s call for a fact-finding tribunal.

In the longer run, the case of East Timor, in a different way from the Kosovo war, forces consideration of fundamental questions about international intervention in humanitarian crises. Kosovo was a brutal ethnic conflict within a sovereign nation. By contrast, Indonesia’s genocidal 1975 land-grab of East Timor was never recognized by the UN, and the sovereignty of the Timorese people was ratified by their recent overwhelming vote for independence.

East Timor also makes the case for strengthening international institutions, including, for all its flaws, the UN. It’s the old US tradition of relying on regional surrogates like Indonesia to carry out its unilateral policies that has given us the current horror. The US ability to muscle Jakarta in this crisis only points up the failure of a policy built on military and intelligence cooperation at the expense of human rights.

The United States and the UN Security Council may have salvaged what was left of the high-minded principle of humanitarian intervention that the President so proudly championed in Kosovo just a few months ago. But added to the question of whether US and other Security Council members will have the backbone to put in an effective UN peacekeeping force to guarantee East Timor’s independence is the question of why it took the Clinton Administration so long to do what it clearly should have done much earlier. What perverse sense of caution, misplaced geopolitical logic or misguided concern for Indonesian stability prevented it from making it clear to the Indonesian military much earlier that the UN Security Council meant business? Until these questions are answered, the world has reason to worry about Washington’s ability to exercise the international leadership it so frequently trumpets.

Now that East Timor is seen as an international crisis, it should not be forgotten that it exists on the global radar screen because a small number of activists, intellectuals and journalists–among them Arnold Kohen, Bishop Paul Moore, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and Nairn–have kept a spotlight on East Timor since the Indonesian invasion and the genocide that followed. This campaign persuaded nations like New Zealand and Portugal, East Timor’s former colonial sovereign, to keep the Timorese case before the United Nations. East Timor thus shows powerfully that in the years to come, grassroots activists will be the best guarantors of human rights. Given corporate interests in Southeast Asia, and US and European dedication to realpolitik, ongoing global witness offers the strongest chance of freeing East Timor.