The Foreign Service Journal, November 2006

The Security Council tasked the U.N. secretariat to administer the small territory until it held elections, drew up a constitution and created rule-of-law institutions. With its admission as the U.N.’s 191st member state in 2002, East Timor was anointed a U.N. success story. But by the spring of 2006, the call had gone out again for Australian troops to help restore peace. A dispute involv- ing the dismissal of army soldiers flared into gang warfare that convulsed the capital, Dili, and caused more than one-tenth of the country’s one million residents to flee. The unrest led to the collapse of East Timor’s govern- ment and new plans for the United Nations to deploy a large security force and lend political support ahead of national elections in 2007. The swiftness of the country’s decline into violence and instability caught United Nations officials off guard. Both in New York and Dili, they acknowledged that the withdrawal of international support had happened pre- maturely, before security forces had become established and the country, Asia’s poorest, had gained its economic footing. As a result, now the U.N.’s experience in East Timor is being criticized in some quarters as another case of nationbuilding on the fly, with major U.N. powers eager to declare victory after elections before institutions are truly stable. Its response to the East Timor setback will be observed even more closely as other nationbuilding projects enter a critical phase and the just-formed U.N. Peacebuilding Commission seeks to develop a new mechanism for sustainable post-conflict reconstruction. Starting from Scratch East Timor separated violently from Indonesia in 1999 after its residents voted overwhelmingly for indepen- dence in a U.N.-run referendum. After Australian troops had restored order, ousting Indonesian-backed militias, the U.N. assumed de facto sovereign powers to build a state virtually from scratch. Post-referendum violence razed most of the country’s infrastructure nearly to the ground. There was essentially no police force, judiciary or coherently organized economy. In the parlance of development experts, East Timor was at “ground zero,” requiring extensive international aid and guidance to find its bearings. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor set up health and education systems after its arrival at the end of 1999 and trained East Timorese to hold elections and develop institutions to run the country. But after three years, with the level of international assis- tance reaching hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and in the aftermath of free and fair elections, a number of Security Council members were eager to wind down UNTAET. U.S. envoy Richard Williamson, addressing the Security Council late in 2002, echoed other diplomats in citing the U.N.’s success in East Timor, saying it pro- vided “the training wheels to help the Timorese build their own functioning administration, civil service, police and security force.” But some development experts argue the U.N. com- mitment should have lasted far longer. Ramesh Thakur of U.N. University in Tokyo and William Maley of Australia National University wrote jointly in the Daily Yomiuri in July 2006 that it was proper to establish a democracy in East Timor, but said it was wrong to use elections as an exit strategy when reforms were incom- plete. “A ‘democratic’ society without justice is less appealing than a just society in which elections have been delayed until it is safe for them to be held,” they wrote. The U.N. Security Council gave the new nation a passing grade on security-sector reform, even though there were still serious institutional flaws in both the national army and police. At the core of the dispute in early 2006 were regional rivalries in the military. The government tried to dismiss nearly 600 soldiers in the national army, mostly from the west. They had been complaining of discrimination by members from the east. When their complaints spilled over into violence, the government was poorly equipped to respond. Police quickly melted away in the face of angry mobs. A U.N. assessment mission later found a weak police force throughout the country. U.N. experts also faulted the defense ministry for provisioning the armed forces inad- equately. “Legislation and internal procedures for the regulation of the force and the ministry itself are almost entirely lacking, resulting in inadequate civilian oversight of the force. Allocated resources for the development of the ministry, including provision for professional posts to be staffed by Timorese, have not been utilized,” the report said. Stable security institutions are especially important in a country of such limited economic means as East Timor. With an annual per capita income of about $550, its econ- omy remains the poorest in Asia, according to the World Bank. Unemployment at the time of the spring 2006 vio- F O C U S N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 23