Timor-Leste: Hard lessons in peacekeeping


The international community had considered Timor-Leste a notable UN peacekeeping achievement until violence exploded in April 2006, less than a year after the last UN peacekeepers had departed and a few months before the mandate of the follow-on political office was to conclude.The unexpected turn of events in this tiny, new South-East Asian country left many wondering what exactly had gone wrong.

The months following the departure of the UN peacekeeping mission in May 2005 had seen progress for Timor-Leste. Four years after independence in 2002, international confidence was growing in the new State, and the traumas of 1999 appeared to be subsiding. Instead, the violence of 2006 seemed to reveal the risks to nation-building of international forces leaving too soon or not having done enough while there.

In early 2006,UN planners discussedways of continuing support after the departure of the UN political office (UNOTIL), particularly for presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2007. But in April, a simmering dispute over sacked members of the armed forces flared into the open. The “petitioners”, as those soldiers had become known, were to hold a peaceful demonstration from 24 to 28 April to protest the dismissal of some 600 soldiers (more than one third of the nation’s armed forces), demanding the establishment of an independent commission to address their grievances, including alleged discrimination within the armed forces against persons from the western districts.

AUnited Nations police officer from Malaysia patrols the Comoro market in Dili,

October 27, 2006. (Reuters Photo by Lirio Da Fonseca)

On the final day of the demonstration, violence erupted in front of the Government Palace, followed by other incidents around the capital,Dili. By the end of the day, five Timorese had been killed and more than 40 injured. The ramifications were far-reaching. Tensions heightened between the armed forces and the Timorese police force (PNTL), as well as within PNTL (often setting easterners against westerners), leading to the disintegration of the PNTL. Thousands of Timorese in Dili were displaced from their homes and sought refuge in churches, other public buildings and United Nations facilities, while others fled to outlying districts.

On 25 May, the situation worsened as members of the Timorese Defence Forces (F-FDTL) launched armed attacks against the PNTL national headquarters. UN military training advisers and UN police negotiated a ceasefire but, as the chief UN Military Training Adviser escorted the unarmed Timorese police out of the headquarters, F-FDTL officers reportedly opened fire killing eight and wounding more than two dozen people.

Meanwhile, on 24 May, the leaders of Timor-Leste made requests to the Governments of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal, for police and military assistance to restore peace and security. Two days later, international forces arrived to restore law and order, which had completely broken down.Gangs were looting and setting fires; 37 people lost their lives, with many others wounded. The humanitarian consequences were severe, with more than 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). These events shaped the rest of 2006.

A boy salutes his father, a police officer deployed to Timor-Leste, during a sending- off ceremony at Camp Crame headquarters in Manila, the Philippines, October 14, 2006. (Reuters Photo by Cheryl Ravelo)

Four successive UN missions had been deployed in Timor-Leste from mid-1999 until the troubles of April/May 2006. Each had a distinct purpose, the first, UNAMET, organized and conducted a popular consultation which resulted in the Timorese rejection of special autonomy within Indonesia. From October 1999 to May 2002, UNTAET exercised legislative and executive authority over the territory during the transition to independence and supported capacity building for self-Government.Next, the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) was to provide assistance until all operational responsibilities were devolved to the Timorese authorities, and to enable the new nation to attain self-sufficiency. Although Secretary- General Kofi Annan had recommended maintaining a peacekeeping force, he failed to win support from all members of the Security Council, which instead established a special political office (the UN Office in Timor-Leste or UNOTIL) to support the further development of critical State institutions, including police, and provided training in democratic governance and human rights.

The achievements of these missions were substantial.Nonetheless, the 2006 crisis forced the UN and international community to take a hard look at nation- building and peacekeeping policies and practices.

“The sad events of recent weeks reflect shortcomings not only on the part of the Timorese leadership, but also on the part of the international community, [in] inadequately sustaining Timor-Leste’s nation- building process,” the Secretary-General told the Security Council in June. “We have learned, at a painful price for Timor-Leste, that the building of institutions on the basis of fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law is not a simple process that can be completed within a few short years.”

At the end of May 2006, Secretary-General Annan dispatched a Special Envoy, Ian Martin, to assess the situation.He returned to tell the Security Council that the most serious underlying cause of the conflict lay within the security sector.

“The crisis has revealed political cleavages, not only between the defence force and the police service, which has long been a subject of concern, but also internally in each institution,” Martin said. Within each institution, ideological divisions, originating from the resistance and influencing the initial recruitment of both institutions had been allowed to fester.

On 8 June, the then Foreign Minister, José Ramos-Horta, asked the Secretary- General to appoint a Special Commission of Inquiry to review the incidents of April and May and other related issues, ensuring that “the outcome of such an inquiry will assist the reconstitution of Timor-Leste’s security sector and ensure accountability for criminal and human rights violations allegedly committed during the crisis period.

” In its final report released on 17 October, the Independent Special Commission of Inquiry, established under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, established the responsibility of various actors and institutions, including several former highranking officials.

Implementing the Commission’s recommendations will require further assistance from the UN and the international community, particularly in helping to establish a stronger, independent judicial system.

On 25 August, the Security Council established a new peacekeeping operation, the UN Integrated Mission in Timor- Leste (UNMIT), entrusted with a farreaching mandate and a strong civilian component, including 1,608 United Nations civilian police.

Among UNMIT’s key tasks are facilitating the process of national reconciliation; supporting the electoral process; supporting the restoration of security; training the Timorese police; supporting and strengthening key institutions; supporting and strengthening human rights monitoring; supporting the completion of investigations into outstanding cases of serious human rights violations committed in 1999; cooperating and coordinating with UN agencies and other partners; facilitating the provision of relief and recovery assistance; assisting the design of poverty reduction and economic growth policies; mainstreaming gender perspectives and those of children and youth; and providing accurate information to the Timorese population.

In the weeks following UNMIT’s establishment, the situation in Timor-Leste remained volatile. With its executive policing role, the UNMIT police, in close cooperation with the international security forces, have maintained overall public security, often restoring calm when violent incidents occur and engaging in community policing. Further progress was achieved on 1 December with the signing of the Supplemental Arrangement on Policing between UNMIT and the Government, which regulates UNMIT’s exercise of executive police authority and the reconstitution of the national police force.

A key objective for UNMIT is to continue to contribute to the maintenance of public security until the Timorese police are able to resume their responsibilities. The restoration of peace and security is a prerequisite for the return of 100,000 IDPs to their homes and for the presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in April/May 2007.


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Prepared by the Peace and Security Section, United Nations Department of Public Information.

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