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Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Report 180 / Asia

Handing Back Responsibility to Timor-Leste’s Police

The United Nations should hand over formal control of the Timor-Leste police as soon as possible.

Executive Summary

The United Nations should hand over formal control of the Timor-Leste police as soon as possible. A protracted process that began in May has taken a bureaucratic approach to assessing whether they are ready to take charge, but the reality on the ground is that the Timorese police have long operated under their own command. Without an agreed plan for reforming the country’s police after the 2006 crisis, the UN and the government have made a poor team for institutional development. A longer handover may further damage relations between the UN’s third-largest policing mission and the Timor-Leste government, which has refused to act as a full partner in implementing reforms. The UN has a continued role to play in providing an advisory presence in support of police operations. For this to work, the government must engage with the UN mission and agree upon the shape of this partnership. To make any new mandate a success, they need to use the remaining months before the current one expires in February 2010 to hammer out a detailed framework for future cooperation with the police under local command.

Timor-Leste still needs the UN and stepping back is not the same as leaving too early. There is domestic political support for a continuing albeit reduced police contingent, at least until the planned 2012 national elections. A sizeable international deployment can no longer be left to operate without a clear consensus on the task at hand. Any new mandate should be limited, specific and agreed. The UN can provide units to underwrite security and support the Timorese police in technical areas such as investigations, prosecutions and training. These would best be identified by a comprehensive independent review of police capacity, and matched with key bilateral contributions, including from Australia and Portugal. In return, the Timorese should acknowledge the need to improve oversight and accountability mechanisms. The UN and its agencies must continue to help build up these structures and in the interim monitor human rights.

The UN took a technocratic approach to the highly politicised task of police reform. Sent in to restore order after an uprising in 2006, the UN police helped shore up stability in the country but then fell short when they tried to reform the institution or improve oversight. They are not set up to foster such long-term change and were never given the tools to do so. The Timorese police were divided and mismanaged at the top; the UN misplaced its emphasis on providing hundreds of uniformed officers to local stations across the country. It neglected the role played by the civilian leadership in the 2006 crisis and the need to revamp the ministry overseeing the police as part of a lasting solution. The mismatching of people to jobs, short rotations as well as the lack of familiarity with local conditions and languages clipped the ability of international police to be good teachers and mentors. Without the power to dismiss or discipline officers, the mission could not improve accountability. The government declined to pass laws in support of the UN role, sending a defiant message of non-cooperation down through police ranks.

In the absence of a joint strategy, structural reform has been limited. The government appointed a commander from outside the police ranks, compromising efforts to professionalise the service. It has promoted a paramilitary style of policing, further blurring the lines between the military and police. The skewed attention to highly armed special units will not improve access to justice, and the ambiguity it creates risks planting the seeds of future conflict with the army. Timorese leaders are attuned more than any outsider to the deadly consequences of institutional failure. To avoid this, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, an independence hero, now heads a joint defence and security ministry. Political quick fixes based on personalities may keep the police and the army apart in the short term, but they add little to more lasting solutions that respect for rule of law might provide.

For the international community, this struggle over command of the police between the UN and one of its member states contains many lessons. The slow drawdown of UN police in Timor-Leste is not the prudent exit strategy it may appear. The mission has been neither a success nor failure. Unable to muster consensus on a long-term police development strategy, it leaves behind a weak national police institution. The mission’s most enduring legacy might be in the lessons it can teach the Security Council not to over-stretch its mandates. The UN should think carefully about stepping in and taking control of a local police service, particularly, as in the case of Timor-Leste, when large parts of it remain functioning. Complex reforms of state institutions cannot be done without the political consent of those directly involved.

Dili/Brussels, 3 December 2009

Commentary / Asia

Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?

Timor-Leste seems to have passed the test. With last Saturday’s parliamentary poll, it has now held three elections this year without significant violence. This will allow for the withdrawal of a UN peacekeeping mission whose 1,100-strong police component has long seemed out of synch with local realities. Its violent recent past may increasingly look like history, although the poor country that celebrated only the 10th anniversary of the restoration of its independence in May still faces numerous challenges.

Concerns that the formation of a new coalition government might give rise to violence, as occurred following the 2007 elections, now look misplaced as provisional results show only four parties due to take seats in parliament (official results are due next week). A look at the seat results shows that the CNRT (National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction) has increased its share from 18 to 30 seats, and looks likely to form another government with former coalition partner Partido Democrático (eight seats) and maybe Frenti-Mudança (two seats).This is good for stability in the short term, but it also carries risks. A stronger government composed of fewer parties may be able to pursue clearer legislative objectives, but it will put great pressure on FRETILIN as perhaps the only party in opposition. As a young country only ten years on from independence, Timor-Leste’s parliament continues to consider questions of fundamental importance to the country’s future on which there is much debate, such as how to spend the billions in its Petroleum Fund, or how to structure land administration. Chosen from party lists and not constituencies, giving them little incentive to engage with communities, Timor-Leste’s parliamentarians to date have struggled to provide either an effective check on the executive or a constructive partner by initiating their own legislation. CNRT’s dominance will mean less active scrutiny and will further erode its role as an instrument of accountability.

The elections were not violence-free. There were some minor incidents of stone throwing and a report of three houses being burnt in Viqueque district in the last few days. But even in this volatile part of Timor-Leste, it was much less than the hundreds burnt around the 2007 polls. When we visited the district in May and asked why, the answer from the police, local government, chefes de suco, and civil society workers alike was unanimous – the threats from heads of the police and army had worked. Their blunt warnings that troublemakers would be shot were backed up with high-profile joint patrols and those contemplating violence got the message. It was a victory for “conflict prevention” that raised new questions about how the country will be governed in the future.