Subject: The Guardian: UN revamps 'failing' justice system to pave way for independence

The Guardian [UK] August 30, 2001

East Timor prepares for historic election

UN revamps 'failing' justice system to pave way for independence

John Aglionby in Dili, East Timor

The East Timorese are taking another landmark step on their transition to full independence today when they go to the polls for their first free elections.

Following a largely peaceful campaign involving 16 parties, United Nations administration officials are confident that more than 90 per cent of the 425,000 registered voters will turn out to vote. They will be choosing representatives for an assembly that will write the constitution and prepare for independence, expected in the middle of next year.

Once independence is completed, they will also preside over another landmark ballot: the election of a figurehead to help smooth East Timor's path to democracy.

The resistance hero Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, the choice of all 16 parties contesting today's elections, finally agreed earlier this week to run for the presidency.

Today's ballot takes place on the second anniversary of a referendum in which the East Timorese voted to end 24 years of often brutally repressive occupation by Indonesia.

Indonesian soldiers and their local militias waged a campaign of violent intimidation for eight months before that vote and then virtually destroyed the former Portuguese colony after the result. At least 1,000 people were killed and 250,000 were forcibly relocated to Indonesian West Timor.

It is accepted that the territory will never fully develop until the East Timorese get justice for the crimes of this period and the preceding 24 years, in which about 200,000 people may have died, and create reconciliation mechanisms to heal rifts with the rank-and-file militia members.

But the justice and reconciliation process is stalling as the UN struggles to overcome the delays, crises and scandals in the justice system that have left the East Timorese questioning the international community's commitment to them. This is despite the UN achieving a conviction rate for serious crimes such as murder, rape and torture that is much higher than the international tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda

A strike by local judges complaining of poor conditions, a litany of mistakes by senior managers, executive interference, the refusal of some local people to cooperate with the UN, and a failure to implement UN security council recommendations are just some of the issues that have prompted the UN to overhaul the system.

So little has been done since the UN Security Council warned last year of "shortcomings in the implementation of justice in East Timor", that the administrator, Sergio Vieira de Mello, has asked his new deputy, the New Zealand lawyer Dennis McNamara, to address the issue. "There is undoubtedly a serious problem with justice," Mr McNamara said. "I do not think that the UN has genuinely prioritised that properly."

He is proposing a wide-ranging revamp of the relevant management structures and the justice system, including the development of a reception, truth and reconciliation commission.

Amnesty International has drawn similar conclusions about the state of East Timor, stating last month that the human rights of the East Timorese "cannot be guaranteed".

Some East Timorese non-governmental organisations (NGO) are becoming so disillusioned that they are refusing to hand over evidence to the UN because they do not think it will make any difference.

The cabinet member for justice, Gita Welch, denies that major changes are necessary. "The system has not failed, it has not been tested yet," she said.

Some changes have already begun. Jean-Louis Gilissen, the new deputy general prosecutor for special crimes, said that he had initiated a shake-up of the Serious Crimes Unit despite still not having received his budget for July.

"I do not want a total severance from the past," he said. "I want to try to find the good things from the past and marry them with new things for the future."

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