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Homepage > Browse by Publication Type > Speeches > Self Determination and Peace Operations in Timor-Leste

Self Determination and Peace Operations in Timor-Leste

Jim Della-Giacoma  |  28 May 2012

Civil-Military Affairs Conference
Queanbeyan, Australia


When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair travelled to Timor-Leste in August last year, he met with PM Xanana Gusmao. At one point in the private visit, he imparted some key things he had learnt from his ten years in office, all of which resonate with my presentation this morning. First, he said, all politics is local. Then he advised the former guerrilla leader to prioritise ruthlessly and don’t think that just because you issue a written order or set the system a target that people will do what you say. Finally, he strongly advised Timor-Leste to get out from under the UN mission and its international advisors as soon as possible as hosting them was a burden that this small, poor country did not need.

This morning I’m going to try to do four things. First, review some key events. Secondly, examine what the UN’s transitional administration got right. Thirdly, look what it did less well, and, fourthly, make some general observations about what might be learnt from the experience of peace operations in Timor.

One of the habitual problems with peace operations is that they set themselves up as the only thing between triumph and disaster. Today I hope to deflate such rhetorical bombast, dismantle some myths and illustrate the limits of international intervention as well as show what makes it hard and why there is the need for a lot of good luck.

Independent Timor-Leste exists because of three UN-sponsored missions that followed on from the 5 May Agreements signed to resolve the question of the unfinished decolonisation of East Timor. Between June 1999 and May 2002 – UNAMET, InterFET, and UNTAET were authorised, deployed, and wound up. They were the most important of six Security Council sanctioned operations. I will focus on these keystones as well as touch on the three successors – UNMISET, UNOTIL, and UNMIT – and the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force in place since 2006.

UNAMET, InterFET, and UNTAET were the peace operations that had the most impact, and took place when the local political environment was most conducive to the intervention of outsiders. The rapid implementation and ambitious scope of the first three missions created a country in less than three years and required that many corners be cut. The political mission UNAMET ran a referendum in four months, the multi-national force InterFET quickly re-established security in five, and the transitional administration UNTAET restored the country’s independence in just 31 months. By way of contrast, UNMIT, first mandated in August 2006 as an executive policing mission, has now been going for 69 months.

A decade after the restoration of independence I want to look back and make something of a reassessment of these missions and how we understand them.

The enormity of the task given to UNTAET is still striking – build a new state from the ashes of a deliberately destroyed Indonesian province. It was a unique and rare challenge resulting from a historical accident of international diplomacy. With little real preparation, UN staff were dispatched to work with Timorese to build a new country that became the 191st member of the United Nations.

All three missions were time bound, relatively simple, and almost as soon as they were deployed, each had to start constructing its exit strategy. They had months to do things that would usually take years to prepare for. But UNTAET was also short because it was squeezed by local leaders impatient to run their own show and by member states that wanted resources allocated to more needy cases. It was never an option to stay long-term, even if it would have made the country better run, but the lack of buy-in and increasing resistance to its presence from Timorese would have made UNTAET less effective over time.

Since May 2002, the country has been in the hands of Timorese politicians and its leaders share the blame for starting and kudos for resolving the post-independence crisis of 2006. Besides open fighting between the army and police, the trouble included the premature toppling of the first elected government, and armed attacks on the president and prime minister in 2008. In the last six years, the Timorese have used the UN as an insurance policy while increasingly ignoring its advice. The 2006 crisis was a self-inflicted and painful wound, but one that the government has tried to heal by making its own political deals, widespread use of presidential pardons, and buying political stability. Financially independent and tired of being told what to do, at least in the fields of peace and security, Timorese have in recent years reduced the international community to being a spectator.

But what went right, particularly with UNTAET?

First, the mission fulfilled its core mandate. Building on the foundation provided by InterFET, the transitional administration maintained security, repatriated tens of thousands of refugees, and ensured there was no mass starvation or outbreak of chronic disease. Each of these tasks was in a field that the UN and its agencies had deep practical experience.

UNTAET held elections that were not disputed, restarted key institutions of the state, and administered the country as a Timorese constituent assembly wrote a constitution that assured the legitimacy of the government that would run the new state.

Secondly, it built bridges facilitating the restoration and normalisation of the relationship with Indonesia. It organised key visits of leaders of the two countries – Xanana Gusmao to Jakarta in November 1999, Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur and Megawati Soekarnoputri to Dili in February 2000 and May 2002. Also it quickly obtained general agreement on a workable international boundary and re-established diplomatic relations.

Thirdly, it laid the foundations for financial independence. UNTAET confirmed that Indonesia had renounced its claim to the Timor Gap and then started negotiations with Australia relating to petroleum revenues from the Timor Sea. This has bequeathed to Timor, at least for the time being, an enviable level of fiscal independence. It is an impoverished country of just over one million people, but one with a USD$10.2 billion bank account.

Finally, it stood up an independent government. Looking back a decade later, we can see it did a good enough job in creating an administration that functioned to a minimal level, in part by bringing back many Indonesian trained civil servants, including police, rather than starting from scratch. This was done on a shoestring with an annual budget in 2002 of $60m and 10,000 public servants; Timor-Leste in 2012 as a budget of $1.7 billion and a civil of service of around 32,000.

What didn’t work so well?

First, the UN did not address internal friction. Successive missions did not and could not resolve long-standing tensions, personality clashes and political rivalries within the Timorese elite who are still split between those who fought 24 years in the hills, those who spent that time in exile, and those who supported Indonesian integration. The mission paid undue attention to the Diaspora to the detriment of those who had remained in-country under occupation. The predictable consequence was to help re-establish the elite from a quarter century before.

Could UN special representatives have played a bigger role in sponsoring greater unity? Perhaps, but these splits initially looked more like personality clashes rather than the triggers for violent schisms. The crisis of 2006 and the attacks on the leadership in 2008 both pushed the country to the brink. They were serious challenges that required Timor’s leaders to call in their insurance policy. The ISF made up of Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia, together with a separate Portuguese police detachment, helped quickly stabilise a volatile situation and stop further bloodshed in 2006. Their presence also underwrote security for the 2007 election. But the 2006 violence in Dili was misread by the UN Secretariat and the Security Council as opportunity to once against take an expansive and intrusive role in governance that was not welcomed by the Timorese and the fact that they resisted it showed they had not actually lost control. In 2008, the system, again under attack, held up to the strain. It is not unremarkable that the country survived armed attacks by rebel soldiers on the national leaders and stayed constitutionally intact.

Secondly, despite having one of the most extensive mandates in UN history, UNTAET struggled to come up with an appropriate policy to deal with the pro-independence FALINTIL guerrillas. This mismanagement had the potential to create armed opposition to the UN mission, but playing catch-up with outside advice a new military was created and half-hearted demobilisation of many fighters did take place. This was a difficult issue, indeed, where are the good examples of DDR? A decade later Timor-Leste still struggles with the politics of veterans and creating an appropriate policy.

Thirdly, UN Police during UNTAET provided law enforcement but left behind weak institutions. Police who were part of ISF in 2006 helped restore order in Dili, but the UN missions stretching from UNTAET to UNMIT have struggled with building the Timorese police. Neither did the UN do very well with the justice system. The PNTL is distrusted, often marginalised in the community, and still struggles to properly investigate and prosecute criminal activity. The courts struggle to try cases despite significant donor support. The experience in Timor must lead us to question the suitability of the UNPOL model of building a police force and the efficacy of international support for the justice sector. UNPOL’s performance in executive policing and training during the early period of UNTAET was affected by slow recruitment and deployment, the range in quality of the officers provided, and a difficult and unfamiliar operating environment. The issue of finding suitably qualified officers for UNPOL deployments is a perennial one. High turnover, divergent policing styles, and the often poor quality of the police sent on missions has bred strong resistance to international policing assistance among Timorese officers.

Finally, during UNMIT, the mission attempted security sector reform without results raising the question of whether it should be in this business at all. Security sector reform is a political and not a technical task and the mission struggled to recruit the right people for these jobs. It is difficult for many outsiders without the language skills or the in-country experience to understand enough to work out what is going on in this highly sensitive sector. What resulted was a project with goals that were completely divorced from those of serving the government and providing useful policy advice that an incoming administration could apply.

There are six observations that I want to leave you with.

First, the Timor context shows us that those missions conceived in minimal or narrow terms were more effective. Conceiving a mission that is short, light in footprint, and as tightly focused as possible will increase the chances of “success”.

Secondly, the quality and experience of mission personnel matters. UNAMET benefitted from a small, core team who brought not only long experience of Timor but also personal commitment. Because if its size, UNTAET had difficulty recruiting enough personnel, particularly with appropriate skills and experience.

It is also not uncommon to hear international staff on these missions bemoan the “politicization” of the missions that are first and foremost political interventions. It makes me wonder why are there not more former politicians working on peace operations. These jobs require experience in the compromises of running democratically elected administrations. Military-led missions also need better country specific political analysis, which in my observation does not always come from military intelligence units.

Thirdly, large international missions are intrusive and do feel like occupations. The longer UNTAET went on, the greater the results it was supposed to achieve, but its intrusive presence made the Timorese elite, whose cooperation was integral to the mission’s success, start to turn against it and work to accelerate its departure. In Timor we see there is an inverse relationship between international control and local ownership. Discontent with the UN decreased as local elites took greater control of the government. Without maintaining strong legitimacy, a mission will find it hard to succeed. This can come from the circumstances or nature of its mandate as well as domestic political factors. In Timor, mission legitimacy was probably at its height with InterFET and UNTAET in November 1999, before it actually tried to start governing, and at its nadir with UNMIT and ISF in 2006-2007 when the missions were surrounded by accusations of political bias ahead of national elections, the formation of a governing coalition, and how it dealt with the mutinous soldiers led by renegade Alfredo Reinado.

Fourthly, UNTAET is often called a “nation building” mission, although “state building” would be more accurate. It should also be remembered as “seat warming” exercise. Along with InterFET, UNTAET’s job was to clear, build, hold, and handover. Clear out the militia and the Indonesian military; build a framework for government; hold an election; and then leave. The international community should conceive its role in these cases to be just “kick starting” a long domestic process. The political nature of exit strategies should be acknowledged and neither the international community nor local players should hide behind technocratic processes, box ticking exercises or complex matrixes. UNTAET’s departure on the 20th of May 2002 and UNMIT’s nominal handover of policing powers on the 27th March 2011 were on arbitrary dates significant to Timorese leaders and not in accordance with any real judgment by the international community or the UN mission about whether they were ready or not.

Fifthly, the international interventions in Timor were blessed with good fortune and a benign strategic environment. The Asian financial crisis toppled Soeharto, promoting Habibie. At the time InterFET was sanctioned, the eyes of the world were focused on Timor due to the annual APEC meeting in Auckland. Timorese also should be grateful that Habibie’s impetuousness gave them a referendum and that he was succeeded by Gus Dur rather than Megawati who was in turn replaced by SBY and not Wiranto, but the factors that influenced these changes were found in Indonesian politics.

Having missions approved and detachments deployed, especially coalitions of the willing, requires strong diplomatic networks and long-established military traditions of working together. Regional leaders and everyone below them need to share a common vision and to be able to talk at times of crisis.

But you also need to be lucky. At the turning point in September 1999, there were no competing international priorities. This would not have been the same two years later. After 9/11, UNTAET was marginally impacted with New York’s attention diverted and the pressure for an accelerated drawdown increased. Let’s face it; while geography makes Timor-Leste figure highly in Australia’s strategic consciousness, it is an obscure country that matters little to most of the P5 on the UNSC. Had the US been under attack in 1999, it would have had no time to lend its pivotal diplomatic support to the establishment of InterFET and UNTAET.

Finally, UNTAET was perhaps the last of the “feel good”, multi-disciplinary, state-building missions that began in the late 1980s with Namibia, Mozambique, Cambodia and culminating in the late 1990s with Timor and Kosovo. Unlike Sudan and South Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, or even Kosovo and Serbia, the relationship between Indonesia and Timor-Leste has turned out to be a good one. Despite our worst fears and some bumps along the way, history has shown Indonesia to be a “friendly neighbour” and today it is Timor-Leste’s strongest advocate for its inclusion in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. SBY’s visit to Dili last week was a warm one and ties between the two countries are only getting stronger.

In conclusion, I believe the ultimate success (or failure) of the missions in Timor-Leste was often beyond the control of each operation and those on the ground. Instead, it was influenced by diplomacy, regional relations, and domestic politics. These factors are hard to manage and not easily subjected to lessons learnt or technocratic fixes.

These missions were at the mercy of local elements beyond the understanding of outsiders or the control of the international community. If they succeeded in the long-term, it was because Timorese had the will to make peace or Indonesians, preoccupied with their own changes, had the disinterest to not interfere.

Timorese themselves have not always listened to our advice or done what they are told to do even if ordered to by a UN Security Council Chapter mandate. And for an exercise that started out as an act of self-determination, this might in itself be regarded as something of a success story.

 
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