Twenty years ago, the international community faced a humanitarian crisis in East Timor, a territory that had experienced 24 years of Indonesian military occupation. After the fall of longtime dictator Suharto in 1998, his successor B.J. Habibie first offered a special autonomy package to East Timor, and then agreed that it would be subject to a referendum, with independence on offer if the Timorese rejected autonomy.

The year 1999 also saw Canada take up a position on the United Nations Security Council. Thanks to years of pressure from activists, churches and trade unions, Prime minister Jean Chrétien’s government was well aware of the East Timor issue as it joined the Council. Canadian governments had consistently accepted Indonesian rule over East Timor.

The Chrétien Liberal government, like Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives and Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals before them, sought increased trade with Indonesia and the Chrétien government identified Indonesia as a priority trade destination, including for military exports. This began to change as pressure mounted around the world after the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize went to Timorese bishop Carlos Belo and Timorese diplomat José Ramos Horta.

In 1998, that began to change as foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy tried to apply his “human security agenda” to the East Timor case under increased public pressure within Canada in support of Timorese self-determination. Axworthy and Secretary of State (Asia Pacific) Raymond Chan began to meet with Timorese leaders including Ramos Horta and jailed independence leader José Alexandre Xanana Gusmão, as well as returning representatives of a Canadian church delegation to East Timor. At the end of 1998, under questioning from NDP member of parliament Svend Robinson, Chan reversed two decades of Canadian government policy and went on record in support of East Timor’s right to self-determination.

The documents from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) files on East Timor for the year 1999 show how that played out. This political lead led to a more DFAIT announcement of the same policy shift early in 1999 and a series of steps designed to implement the policy. They show a clear sense of political direction from the top, with officials following the ministerial lead. Documents indicate that there was ongoing consultation with Timorese resistance leaders who pushed Axworthy and Chan to go further, and a relatively high degree of responsiveness. This was supported by a clear awareness that Canadian public opinion was mobilized in support of East Timor in 1999, and consultation with Canadian NGOs who also pushed the government to go further.

Canadian officials in turn pushed globally for stronger measures in support of a successful referendum and then pushed hard for the results of the August 30 referendum to be respected. After 78.5% of the voters opted for independence, the Indonesian army clearly attempted to derail the results with a wave of violence carried out by pro-Indonesia militia groups. These documents show that the Indonesian army was responsible for these militia groups and their violence far in advance, and that it aided and abetted their violence. They show that Canadian officials were well aware of this, as were officials from many other countries, but that all of these governments nevertheless accepted Indonesian insistence that the Indonesian army handle security for the referendum.

The documents also show the importance of multilateral pressure. Although it led the international security force that replaced Indonesian rule, Australia did not “save” East Timor, as some Australian politicians assert. Nor did the United States, as some journalistic coverage now claims. Both those countries applied pressure on Indonesia late, and reluctantly. The full story requires attention to the United Nations Security Council and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit of September 1999.

Canada, too, came late. It backed Indonesian rule until late 1998, but then shifted. In 1999, Canadian officials tried to ensure a stronger UN presence and involvement, but was defeated by the majority of the Security Council. This continued even after the post-ballot violence of September 1999. Canadian officials evidently hoped to work with Australia but Australian officials, including foreign minister Alexander Downer, declined Canadian requests that Australia take the lead on several measures designed to pressure Indonesia to accept an international security force able to stop pro-Indonesia killings. Instead, Canada and New Zealand took the lead at APEC, and countries other than the US took the lead at the UN. Concerted international pressure through these bodies made the difference.

These documents add to existing documentary evidence. Some of the Australian documents are published and others continue to be declassified. Australia researcher Clinton Fernandes describes that county’s role in a book and an online summary. The US documents are also available thanks to researcher Brad Simpson who has shared many of them via the National Security Archive. The documents in this briefing book are summarized in an article published by The Conversation and will be discussed in my forthcoming book from UBC Press, Challenge the Strong Wind: Canada and East Timor 1975-1999.

Later studies show that some 2,000 people were killed in September 1999, a number that could have been much higher without international intervention. As many as half of the people of East Timor may have been forcibly displaced to Indonesian territory. The story is told at more length in the Timorese truth commission report Chega! and in a book by Geoffrey Robinson, a Canadian historian who worked with the UN mission in East Timor (UNAMET) in 1999.