Is policing in Timor-Leste a spectator sport?
Is policing in Timor-Leste a spectator sport?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Op-Ed / Asia

Is policing in Timor-Leste a spectator sport?

The end of February is here, which means it's time for the UN Security Council to renew the mandate of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste. Based on the Secretary-General's latest report, released on 18 February, it seems very much like business as usual. The report clings to the fiction that the UN is in charge of policing the half-island state. The reality is a lot murkier. A formal handover of 'executive policing responsibilities' is progressing on a district-by-district basis, but response to recent events resembles a collective abdication of responsibility.

In December, shots fired into the air by the Timorese police (PNTL) outside a late-night party led to the death of a popular musician. The PNTL General Commander soon ordered his officers in Dili to 'step back' and give the UN police the lead.

As Dili residents began to complain about the sudden invisibility of their own police, the Timorese district commander then unilaterally ordered his officers to cease operations altogether. He said the UN police were ineffective, using their guns 'just for show', citing the injury of his officers in a confused joint response to fighting in one of the city's markets.

He also said the PNTL wasn't learning anything from its UN counterparts. After all, the commander asked, isn't the UN technically responsible for security? It was a daring rebuke to the logic of the UN's district-by-district handover. Newspapers quickly filled with calls for the return of the PNTL, seen as faster to respond and less hesitant to bring out its guns. PNTL has since returned to the streets, but the incident hurt the image of the UN police and further weakened the 'democratic policing principles' they are here to promote.

Neither the PNTL senior command nor the Government publicly spoke out against the district commander's move. The General Commander was busy leading a dubious 'mega-operation' against rumoured 'ninja' activity in the border districts — without any UN involvement, even though the international force retains executive authority in the area. (One leading NGO has also raised concerns over possible human rights violations.)

The Secretary-General's report is short on prescriptions to cure the ills of the Timorese police, but provides incisive diagnosis of its problems. Dili is back to 'apparent normalcy' since the 2006 crisis, but it argues the PNTL is not ready to give up UN support. The service remains weak in operational, administrative and management capacity, and lacks basic equipment. There are few clear, enforced policies on fundamentals such as the use of force. There is ample evidence of misconduct with no effective disciplinary mechanism. Police frequently have little understanding of the country's evolving criminal legislation.

Much work thus remains to be done, but the report also acknowledges the 'limited capacity of UNMIT police to contribute to the development of the PNTL', noting consistent difficulties in attracting staff with the right skills. The Secretary-General recommends a limited reduction in police presence by mid-2011. But the question is not how many police will be here but what they will be doing. Much remains to be defined regarding a 'reconfiguration' of roles as the handover proceeds.

Given this inability of UN police to influence outcomes, Crisis Group recommended in December that the UN hand over formal control sooner rather than later. This would bring the mission's mandate into line with the reality of policing in the country and hopefully prompt the Government, and the police, to take further steps toward solving problems only they can fix.

Future support from either the UN, Australia, Portugal, or even Indonesia will only work if the Government can be clear about its needs. It requires a comprehensive plan for the force's future development — a full independent assessment could be a first step. In the meantime, the Government, PNTL and UNMIT need to put aside public rancour and find common ground on 'reconfiguring' the role of the UN police if they are to remain an active player rather than a mere spectator in building the police in Timor-Leste.

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.

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