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 2 minutes

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.

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