Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Has Timor-Leste left behind its violent past?
Briefing 116 / Asia

Timor-Leste: Time for the UN to Step Back

The size of the policing contingent of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) should be sharply reduced to prepare for the peace operation’s eventual end and encourage the country to assume full responsibility for ensuring its own security and future stability.


The policing contingent of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) should be sharply reduced in size to reflect improvements in security since the 2006 crisis and to support future stability. Since 2008 the Timorese have shown themselves determined to handle internal threats without the support of the UN’s third-largest policing mission. The local force has answered to its own command rather than UN police. The government has for years ignored UN advice on undertaking difficult reforms in the security sector or pursuing formal justice for crimes committed. A mostly stable coalition government elected in 2007 seems to be able to survive its own weaknesses. Real risks to the country’s stability do remain – many the result of the government’s failure to tackle impunity for the events of 2006. These will be best addressed by the country’s political leaders rather than a continued international police presence. When UNMIT’s mandate is renewed in February 2011, the UN should acknowledge the futility of its security sector reform efforts in the face of government disinterest.

While they made an important contribution to the immediate post-crisis stabilisation, UN police were never equipped to conduct the highly political task of police reform. More than four years into the mission, there is still no agreed plan for how to support reform of Timor-Leste’s police. The government has embarked on its own efforts with limited capacity. A comprehensive overhaul of the rank structure undertaken in 2010 was a real step towards the professionalisation and independence of the police. The government has shown little interest in UN recommendations to punish police linked to turmoil in 2006 and has taken over a joint vetting process that will likely end with very limited results. More recent disciplinary cases have reinforced the image of a force unwilling or unable to punish wrongdoing from within its own ranks. The district-by-district process of handing back responsibility from the UN to the Timorese police has nevertheless progressed steadily, with some pressure for a full handover by March 2011.

Key recommendations on justice and security sector reforms made by international bodies after the crisis have been systematically ignored. The work of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry has been undermined as the most prominent prosecutions it proposed have been shelved; others have either been thrown out for lack of evidence, have ended in presidential pardons or are still under investigation four years later. The effect has been to deny justice and corrode the rule of law, leaving the country without a strong disincentive for political violence. This is dangerous, but more international police will not solve it.

The UN mission has poorly handled its mandate to assist in broader security sector reform and its efforts have been consistently rebuffed by the government. The review of the security sector intended to guide policy development remains unpublished four years later and at this stage its release would be irrelevant. The UN’s stated goal of delineating the roles of the police and the army has been rejected by Timorese leaders in favour of bringing the two forces closer together to avoid rivalry. The security sector support unit of the mission should be closed.

As talk of “right-sizing” the peacekeeping mission begins with an eye towards its withdrawal by December 2012, it is clear that such a large mission is currently not tailored to the country’s needs. As its executive policing role looks likely to end in early 2011 with the completion of the handover, the police contingent should be reduced by at least half. Current plans for only a limited reduction will leave an oversized police contingent that will mask the continued operational and logistical deficiencies in Timor-Leste’s police. The government and the Timorese police command should engage those UN police who do remain on how best to address these deficiencies between now and the mission’s full withdrawal.

In addition, immediate priorities for discussions underway between the government and the UN mission on the future of UNMIT should include:

  • A binding agreement with the government on a limited set of priorities for training and support to core functions of the Timorese police by those UN police that remain, including investigations and disciplinary mechanisms.
  • Clarification of the likely terms of any handover of assets of the UN mission.
  • Support for an independent assessment of the needs and capacity of Timor-Leste’s police, as requested by the government, which could serve as a tool for planning future domestic and bilateral training.
  • Discussion with the Australia/New Zealand International Stability Force regarding the timing of the departure of the international security presence in Timor-Leste (ISF and UNPOL).
  • Discussion of an ongoing political role for the UN in supporting the 2012 elections as well as in political and human rights monitoring after the full withdrawal of UNMIT.

The UN will leave behind much unfinished work in building the capacity of Timor-Leste’s police, but the violence of 2006 was caused more by a failure to address political issues than it was by technical weakness in the country’s security services. The best way to maintain stability through the 2012 elections would be a strong commitment to peaceful political competition by Timor-Leste’s leaders.

Dili/Brussels, 15 December 2010

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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