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The UN’s legacy in Timor Leste

  • Edio Guterres and Ivo Mateus Goncalves

Dili | Tue, January 22 2013 | 10:59 am

The euphoria of the Christmas and New Year period has settled in Timor Leste as the country enters a new era. Having celebrated different historical moments in its history throughout the year, Timor Leste bid farewell to 2012 and in doing so made history.

The beginning of the New Year marked the end of a 13-year United Nations engagement to assist the construction of a new state. Timor Leste is now entering into a “new relationship” with the world body.

The last UN mission, the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste (UNMIT) was established with UN Security Council Resolution 1704 in late August 2006 and was mandated, inter alia, to consolidate national stability, restore and maintain public security through the provision of support to the Timorese National Police force and complete investigations into outstanding cases of serious human rights violations in 1999.

By the time peacekeeping operations ended in 2005, Timor Leste was hailed as a UN success story. When violence broke out in the nation’s capital, Dili, in 2006, the UN was eager for that success story not to be spoilt.

The Security Council promptly established UNMIT and authorized the deployment of a UN Police (UNPOL) force, which at its peak numbered 1,600 personnel.

Having probably heeded advice from long time New York resident and former president of Timor Leste Jose Ramos Horta, that an Asian food restaurant in downtown Manhattan would take years before it made a profit, the UN was now here for as long as it took, to deal with criticism leveled against it that its early departure was a contributing factor to the 2006 violence.

Throughout the 13 years, the UN success story of Timor Leste has also been a darling of the international media. With the UN pull-out and major conflict escalations elsewhere, international media attention on the country now looks certain to fade.

As the partnership takes a new shape, scrutiny will now focus on the work done and tasks that remain incomplete. While the UN peacekeeping mission departs, development agencies will stay behind to continue providing support in social and economic development.

It was always certain that the UN would not stay forever. What was unclear, however, was where to draw the departure line.

At the close of UNMIT, almost everyone involved in the process, Timorese and internationals alike, were convinced that Timor Leste was now ready to stand alone.

The peaceful and smooth conduct of three rounds of elections in 2012 with minimal UN support, and the prevalence of peace following the Feb. 11, 2008 assassination attempt on the then president Horta’s life are proof for this claim.

The Supplementary Policing Agreement signed on Dec. 1, 2006 between the Timor Leste government and the UN established that UNPOL was the holder of executive policing authority in the country, thus overseeing the National Police of Timor Leste (PNTL).

However, the UNPOL-PNTL partnership was ambiguous. Despite the terms of the Supplementary Policing Agreement, the reality on the ground spoke of different facts.

Up to the date of their withdrawal, UN police officers were barely deployed beyond the district centers on permanent basis.

In the subdistricts and villages where the majority of Timorese live, PNTL officers were the sole security providers.

Confusion arose within the community as well as the police force in regards to the dualism of command in the police force. In 2008 for instance, two consecutive orders of suspension by the UNPOL commissioner against the interim PNTL district commander of Baucau were overturned by PNTL’s national leadership. This confusion was attributed to a lack of socialization both on the side of UNMIT and the Timorese government.

Nevertheless, the presence of a UNPOL force and its support for the PNTL has largely been effective in quelling and deterring violence throughout the country. When UNMIT left at the end of 2012, it was hailed as another success, the credit for which goes to the Timorese people, their leaders and the international community alike. But was this a victorious departure?

At the last commemoration of the renowned Santa Cruz Massacre of Nov. 12, before UNMIT’s departure in 2012, the National Alliance for an International Tribunal called on the UN not to abandon its duty to bring justice to the victims of past human rights violations.

On the other hand, both Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and former president Jose Ramos Horta have publicly and pragmatically asserted they will not call for an international tribunal on Timor Leste.

They have also questioned why the UN did not do more to pursue justice when the organization held administrative power in the country during the years of transition.

It is clear that to leave or even push the government of Timor Leste to take the responsibility for pursuing justice for past human rights violations is unfair, as it is an impossible task in the foreseeable future, given the geopolitical, economic and strategic interests at stake.

What is also clear is the fact that calls for accountability for past human rights violations will continue to haunt the UN record in Timor Leste and bilateral relations with Indonesia.

As democracy flourishes in both Timor Leste and Indonesia, voices demanding justice for past human rights violations look set to get louder in both countries.

With the competition for the presidency intensifying ahead of the 2014 general election in Indonesia and the involvement of some of the most prominent former Indonesian Military (TNI) generals in past human rights violations, media attention is likely to increase. The question of justice will return to the spotlight and UN report card on Timor Leste will be re-scrutinized.

Until Timor Leste and Indonesia muster enough power to confront and address their pasts, justice will, to quote the late, former Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas, continue to be a “pebble in the shoe” of the UN, Timor Leste and Indonesia. Before then, any declaration of “mission accomplished” seems to be wanting.

Edio Guterres is a former UNMIT officer. Ivo Mateus Goncalves is an historical researcher based in Dili.


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