“Trickery” and the rule of law in Timor-Leste
“Trickery” and the rule of law in Timor-Leste
Self Determination and Peace Operations in Timor-Leste
Self Determination and Peace Operations in Timor-Leste
Commentary / Asia 5 minutes

“Trickery” and the rule of law in Timor-Leste

The UN peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) is now in the final stages of its long-planned withdrawal. By the end of December, the only staff left will be packing up computers and dismantling the portable containers at its “Obrigado Barracks” headquarters. Following largely peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections earlier this year, Timorese are in confident spirits about the many challenges ahead. But after thirteen years of UN presence in the country, it is natural that there is some apprehension among some about security after the end of peace operations.

The Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP) coalition government in office from 2007-12 never found in the UN a fitting partner for reform. It saw more value in devising and implementing its own solutions. This was most notable in its response to the displacement that followed the 2006 crisis. While the UN favoured a phased, sustainable, decade-long approach to returning tens of thousands in IDP camps, the government instead handed out up to $4500 to households and closed the camps in two years. When then  President José Ramos-Horta was shot in February 2008, UNMIT’s response was criticised as slow and clumsy. The government quickly set up a joint army-police command to handle security, just as UNMIT was supposed to be articulating clearer divisions between the two forces. Pragmatic fixes have trumped long-term and deeper reforms as they have been seen to deliver quick results.

One issue that has so far resisted attempts at quick resolution is recurrent fighting between youth groups, and some of the concerns about post-UN instability have focused on this issue. In late November, returning from an overseas visit on the eve of a ceremony marking the departure of Australian and New Zealand troops (who are also withdrawing), Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão gave a stern warning to trouble-makers. Here’s a translation of what he said:

“Once the UN are gone… if you continue to hurl [stones] at one another, I will arrest you and not give you any food; if you continue to fight one another, I will arrest you and not give you any food. If I need to go to the International Human Rights Court, then I’ll go. It’s in order to protect you. In order to protect your name is one reason, to protect your younger siblings, to protect… us all. Because we are now a reference point for the world. […] Dialogue. Talk to one another. You can’t throw stones or hurt one another. If I find that one of you has killed another? Then you’ll be locked up for a week without even water.”

The prime minister was speaking off the cuff , but his irritation at the persistence of youth fighting is shared by many. “Throwing stones” might not sound like much, but it is often part of a cycle of violence that turns deadly as it continues to evade resolution. It was the murder of a young man by the Comoro River bridge in Dili in December 2011 that led to a one-year national ban on most martial arts group activity. Many now expect the prohibition to be extended when it expires later this month.

The prime minister’s recent comments are alarming, but they should not be read in themselves as heralding a shift toward authoritarianism. Instead, they illustrate the difficulty of balancing a perceived need for strong-arm tactics while trying to strengthen weak institutions. This is important as the country enters a post-peacekeeping era amid a continued push from many leaders for finding “more Timorese” ways of governing.

First, Gusmão’s remarks are part of a broad trend over the past few years that has combined explicit threats by senior leaders with robust response by the security forces. Crisis Group wrote about this in July, after a broad range of people told us that the single-biggest contributor to deterring violence during the elections was the threat from both the police and the army commanders that troublemakers would be shot, paired with a significant police and army presence. There was a similar dynamic at play in the seemingly disproportionate response by special police units to mysterious “ninja” violence in Suai/Bobonaro in 2010 and in Quelicai in 2011. [See Timor-Leste’s Veterans: An Unfinished Struggle?] Both cases began with a couple of violent crimes that, left unsolved by weak local police, gave rise to rumours of masked ninjas spreading fear in rural communities. They both ended with the deployment of hundreds of extra police and mass arrests.

Second, the remarks echo the frustrations many senior officials and police officers have privately expressed over the past several years regarding an “excessive” focus by internationals (and the UN in particular) on human rights violations. Following the remarks quoted above, the prime minister goes on to lament how international organisations give small countries like his a hard time that is disproportionate to the scale of their problems. Many in such positions in Timor-Leste feel they have far more lived experience of what truly constitutes a violation of human rights and what sorts of actions are necessary to uphold the law, particularly in a state with limited resources and a weak justice sector. They want more latitude for dealing with recurrent troublemakers, for whom “fear of the law” in a country with dysfunctional courts is not yet a sufficient disincentive.

Third, the remarks illustrate the frustrations the government will likely continue to face when trying to extract lasting improvements in public order from a policing and justice system that still finds it very difficult to produce convictions. When I asked the local suco chief in Comoro recently about the 2011 murder case, he said the investigation had not gone anywhere because no one had come forward as an eye-witness, and that in the absence of effective pressure from the victim’s family, that meant the case would not be prosecuted. The Timorese justice sector does not yet do a good job of getting results: if high-profile murders go unprosecuted, political violence forgiven through presidential pardons, and youth fighting left unpoliced, it will be difficult to improve security.

If left unchecked, these dynamics all suggest worrisome future trajectories for law and order in Timor-Leste, but they also arise from natural frustrations for a young country whose long history has little to offer in the way of good models of responsive formal justice. Crisis Group will examine these medium and long-term risks in a report in early 2013.

Timorese leaders have displayed a commitment to the rule of law, even if they are sometimes frustrated by the constraints it presents. Where they have sought out unorthodox solutions, they have done so within the constitutional framework (the 2009 repatriation of indicted criminal Maternus Bere to Indonesia is a notable exception). There is little risk that the rule of law will be cast aside wholesale.

But the broader risk is that, with a weak police service, Timorese authorities will become dependent on what one senior police commander called “trickery” as a form of crime deterrence: issuing stern threats that no one intends to enforce. The rationale given for this approach is that as Timor-Leste still struggles to leave behind the legacy of its authoritarian past, the threat of violence is the best available deterrent, and a way of buying time. But it is not yet clear that this approach will be supplemented by real efforts to strengthen law enforcement and encourage a focus on the institutions upholding the law rather than the leaders at their helm. Timorese leaders may be buying time but the trick will not last forever. And then what?

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