Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Report / Asia 3 minutes

Timor-Leste: Security Sector Reform

Four years after Timor-Leste gained independence, its police and army were fighting each other in the streets of Dili.

Executive Summary

Four years after Timor-Leste gained independence, its police and army were fighting each other in the streets of Dili. The April-June 2006 crisis left both institutions in ruins and security again in the hands of international forces. The crisis was precipitated by the dismissal of almost half the army and caused the virtual collapse of the police force. UN police and Australian-led peacekeepers maintain security in a situation that, while not at a point of violent conflict, remains unsettled. If the new government is to reform the security sector successfully, it must ensure that the process is inclusive by consulting widely and resisting the tempation to take autocratic decisions. A systematic, comprehensive approach, as recommended by the UN Security Council, should be based on a realistic analysis of actual security and law-enforcement needs. Unless there is a non-partisan commitment to the reform process, structural problems are likely to remain unresolved and the security forces politicised and volatile.

The problems run deep. Neither the UN administration nor successive Timorese governments did enough to build a national consensus about security needs and the kind of forces required to meet them. There is no national security policy, and there are important gaps in security-related legislation. The police suffer from low status and an excess of political interference. The army still trades on its heroism in resisting the Indonesian occupation but has not yet found a new role and has been plagued by regional (east-west) rivalry. There is a lack of transparency and orderly arrangements in political control as well as parliamentary and judicial oversight with respect to both forces.

The government that took office in August 2007 has an opportunity – while international troops maintain basic security and the UN offers assistance – to conduct a genuine reform of the security sector, drawing on the experiences of other post-conflict countries. But international goodwill is not inexhaustible – there are already signs of donor fatigue – so it needs to act fast.

For its part, the international community must do a better job of coordinating its support to the security sector and responding to a Timorese-owned reform process. For example, the UN police who screen and mentor the local force should be better trained and supervised, and more responsive to feedback from their Timorese colleagues. The departure of the lead UN official on security sector reform at the end of 2007 means that this issue, already sidelined during the 2007 elections, risks further delay.

The fundamental question of who does what requires particular attention. Lines have been blurred between the police and the army. A tenet of security sector reform is that the police should have primary responsibility for internal security. However, the Timorese police have not been given the resources, training and backing to fulfil this role effectively, and national leaders have been too ready to call in the army when disorder threatens. The police structures should be simplified, with greater emphasis on community policing, to help prevent local situations from getting out of hand. Morale is perilously low and will only improve through a sustained process of professionalisation.

The new government’s plan to transfer responsibility for border management from the police to the army is a mistake which could lead to increased tension along a poorly demarcated border, on the other side of which is a heavy Indonesian military presence. It could also see a backlash from local communities that feel the army still has a regional bias. It does make sense, however, for the military to take full responsibility for marine security, an important concern for Timor-Leste. It also has an important part to play in supporting the police when internal security gets out of control and in responding to natural catastrophes – but in both cases subordinate to the police and civilian authorities. The planned introduction of conscription is unnecessary and would exacerbate problems within the force.

Some steps can be taken without waiting for the comprehensive review the Security Council has called for: for example, increasing salaries, improving donor coordination, addressing legislative gaps and improving disciplinary procedures. But key questions such as force size, major equipment purchases, and army and police role definitions should wait until a consultative process has allowed Timor’s citizens to have their say. While outside the scope of this report, wider legal system reform is an essential corollary of security sector reform, if Timor-Leste is to have a functioning system of law and order. 

The post-independence honeymoon ended in 2006. Neither Timorese nor internationals any longer have the excuse of inexperience or unfamiliarity to explain further failings. With international forces providing a temporary safety net, now is the best and possibly last chance for the government and its partners to get security sector reform right.

Dili/Brussels, 17 January 2008

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