Pieter Feith: Becoming witness to peace in Aceh

This month is another historic moment for peace in Indonesia's province of Aceh.

It has been identified by two opposing sides - the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) - as the starting point for the demilitarization process, as mandated by the peace pact signed by the two parties in Helsinki on Aug. 15.

The three-month process of demilitarization, which, it is hoped, will end the decades-long bloodshed in Aceh, could well become the center of attention for the international community.

The presence of no fewer than 150 representatives of the European Union peace mission is boosted by 100 members from ASEAN countries.

Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith, who served as a NATO mediator in the Balkans, has been chosen to lead the EU mission in Aceh - a mandate that has given him a two-fold challenge.

It is a part of history that the Dutch waged a long painful war from 1873 to 1903 in the territory. It was a war the Dutch never really won, and, instead, became a critical reference point for the Acehnese anticolonial struggle.

So for Feith, who has maintained a personal approach to dealing with conflicting parties, and has maintained the approach of negotiation as the best philosophy, such a mandate is also considered a test as to whether his Dutch roots will contribute to turning a series of ordeals in Aceh into a lasting piece.

"I think they are not going to support the peace accord because of my blue eyes or because they like me so much. They will stick to it because peace is in their own interests," said Feith.

Pieter Cornelis Feith was born on Feb. 9, 1945, in Rotterdam. He is currently a close adviser to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and holds the position of deputy director for political and military affairs in the General Secretariat of the European Union.

Political science student
Young Feith graduated from high school in his hometown in the Netherlands. He decided to continue his studies abroad and received a degree in political science from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. In 1970, he received another degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, the U.S.

His diplomatic career began in the foreign ministry of the Netherlands in 1970. He held posts abroad in Bonn, Khartoum, Damascus and New York, before being named the second-most senior official in the Dutch delegation to NATO.

It was during his tenure with NATO that Feith, a first lieutenant in the Netherlands Marine Corps Reserve, became involved in the Balkans crisis.

Beginning with his appointment as political adviser to NATO's command in Bosnia in 1995, he was then put in charge of managing NATO's operations in the Balkans from 1998 to 2001, and became a special representative of then NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson.

In that capacity, Feith served as a mediator in Macedonia and managed to initiate the negotiations that led to the Ohrid peace accord to curb the civil war involving ethnic Albanian rebels and the government troops.

Mediation in Kosovo
Feith also made a contribution to dealing with the Kosovo crisis, including the deployment of peacekeeping forces in Kosovo (KFOR) in 1999, to enable over 890,000 displaced persons to return to their homes.

He did not stop at that point, though.

Feith began to create a "blueprint" for Kosovo's future as he considered that the refugee issues and province-wide elections remained problems for the country.

The "blueprint" would have to create the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) consisting of three republics: Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, whose status would lie somewhere in between autonomy and full independence.

The establishment of a civil authority and administration is another challenge.

He also provided suggestions to the NATO secretary-general and North Atlantic Council on how to take action in settling the conflict in the Balkans, especially after the presence of SFOR, the Stabilization Force, responsible for peacekeeping in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is clear that Feith has been chosen to lead the team in Aceh to address issues that are similar to those he faced in the Balkans: the decommissioning of arms by the Acehnese resistance and the withdrawal of central government troops.

But he will not stop there.

He will closely monitor social and political developments in the province, which were badly devastated by the tsunami last year, in which around 131,000 residents were killed.

His responsibilities will mean he has to deal with assisting former GAM guerrillas to reintegrate into society, support a genuine democracy that enables Acehnese to hold local legislative elections and monitor human rights issues.

An estimated 15,000 people have been killed during the course of the conflict between the government and GAM, which started in 1976.

"My team and I wish to ensure that the whole process will become self-sustaining before we recommend an end to our presence in Aceh," he said.

Some eyebrows have been raised, though, with some Jakarta-based politicians and military people questioning Feith's commitment to maintaining a united Republic of Indonesia.

Feith just smiles in response to such comments.

"I certainly cannot promote separation in Aceh or anywhere else. The European Union's foreign policy is clear: we are supposed to keep nations together, not support separatism.

"We need to deal with current global challenges, like fighting terrorism, rather than allowing nations to fall apart or break up. They need to stay together and remain strong, to avoid becoming failed states.

We are here to work in support of the territorial integrity of Indonesia.

*Published by The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Mon, 09/19/2005