The goal of the truth-seeking programme was to document human rights violations committed by all parties to the political conflict between April 1974 and October 1999. The strategies developed were systematic statement-taking in each sub-district, focused research and the holding of public hearings. Submissions, including documents and other relevant materials, were sought from sources both within Timor-Leste and from abroad.
The Commission collected 7,669 statements from the 13 districts and 65 sub-districts of Timor-Leste.* Together with a coalition of local non-governmental organisations in West Timor it worked to give East Timorese people in West Timor an opportunity also to give statements. Between February and August 2003 the NGO coalition collected on behalf of the Commission a total of 91 statements from East Timorese living in the regions of Belu, Kefamenanu, Soe and Kupang in West Timor.
The research unit of the Commission conducted over 1,000 interviews focusing on famine and displacement; the Indonesian security forces; Fretilin/Falintil; detention and torture; extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances; children; women; and the internal armed conflict. Subjects included individuals who had played significant roles in events and had held leadership positions at various stages of the conflict, as well as perpetrators and victims. Commissioners and staff conducted these interviews in Dili, in the districts, in Portugal and in Indonesia. The research themes broadly corresponded with those of the national public hearings, and researchers also played an important role in identifying and contacting victims and witnesses to testify during these hearings. In mid-2003 the Commission began a series of interviews with key national figures, known as VIP interviews. In addition to personal testimony of direct experience, these interviews enabled the Commission to investigate the background and details of organisations and events. The Commission conducted 15 VIP interviews in Timor-Leste and Indonesia, including West Timor.
In June 2003 the Commission launched a statistical inquiry into the number of East Timorese people who died as a direct result of the conflict, whether due to deprivation, in armed combat, in crossfire or as victims of unlawful killing or enforced disappearance. Although several previous attempts have been made over the years to estimate the number of fatalities from these causes, this was the first opportunity for any organisation to undertake objective research into the death toll during the conflict.
This project was designed and implemented in cooperation with The Human Rights Data Analysis Group, an international organisation which specialises in human rights statistical analysis and which has worked with several other truth commissions. The analysis was based on three sets of independent data:
- Information contained in the approximately 8,000 statements which had been collected, coded and entered into the Commission’s data base,
- a Graveyard Census based on a count of gravestones in a total of 492 graveyards across Timor-Leste,
- a Retrospective Mortality Survey, which was designed by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. An intensive survey of members of 1,322 randomly selected households in 121 aldeias across the territory was undertaken. The survey included a questionnaire designed to yield information related to the death toll, such as the date, circumstances and causes of deaths of family members during the period of the conflict.
The application of statistical techniques to these disparate sets of data, each of which had its own strengths and weaknesses, was able to yield an estimate of the death toll that was scientifically reliable.
* Although the National Development Plan of Timor-Leste refers to 67 sub-districts in the nation, at the time of the formation of the Commission there were 65 generally agreed upon sub-districts, which formed the basis of the operational strategies of the Commission.