|Subject: Economist: The UN
in East Timor
The Economist October 11, 2001
The UN in East Timor
The UN's experience in running East Timor should help it elsewhere
THE United Nations had never taken over a country, lock, stock and barrel, until 1999, when it found itself running East Timor. As it begins winding down its presence after a successful election in August that will lead to statehood early next year, it is assessing its record there. There may never be another UN mission quite like the one in East Timor, but it may still hold lessons for future UN action in failed states. Potential candidates are not hard to find. Civil-war-plagued Sierra Leone and Somalia are two obvious examples in Africa. Afghanistan after the Taliban might perhaps be another.
Yet the UN's record in East Timor is patchy. Anti-UN graffiti dot the walls of the capital, Dili, these days alongside the pro-independence graffiti of yesteryear. Some prominent Timorese have been highly critical of the UN, accusing it of favouritism and even of corruption. The UN officials' high wages have created a dual economy, attracting businesses from Australia and Singapore to cash in on the opportunity. If the history of other UN interventions is any guide, they may well pull out after independence next year, taking their pickings with them.
For all that, the UN has achieved a lot in two years, and on a modest budget. It has built up a police force and a defence force. It has carried out an election and built up a judiciary, all virtually from scratch. It has dealt with a wave of militia incursions in 2000, which threatened to plunge East Timor back into chaos. It has repaired some of the worst damage from 1999, although much remains to be done. And after early complaints that they were being excluded, it has brought Timorese leaders into government, giving them the experience they will need to run their country.
Sergio Vieira de Mello, who heads the UN administration in East Timor, says the UN resolution that created it handed him a huge task without really telling him what to do. No-one knew: it had never been done before. The only comparable UN missions were the one in Cambodia in the early 1990s and the current one in Kosovo, neither of which involved taking over an entire country. Despite the criticisms, Mr de Mello says he is satisfied that his administration has created the institutions it was meant to create. The lessons will be noted and tucked away in the UN archives, to be dusted off if they are ever needed, he says. "We could have done this better. We will next time," he said.
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