Subject: IPA: East Timor in Transition: From Conflict Prevention to State-Building

East Timor in Transition: From Conflict Prevention to State-Building

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Executive summary

Transitional administrations represent the most complex operations attempted by the United Nations. The operations in East Timor and Kosovo are commonly seen as unique in the history of the UN — perhaps never to be repeated. But they may also be seen as the latest in a series of operations that have involved the United Nations in “state-building” activities, where it has attempted to develop the institutions of government by assuming some or all of those sovereign powers on a temporary basis.

Like many innovations in United Nations practice, these operations were born of necessity. The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) provided some much-needed legitimacy to the military intervention undertaken by NATO without Security Council authorization. The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was hurriedly established after the violence that greeted the Timorese people’s overwhelming vote for independence from Indonesia.

Seen in the context of earlier UN operations, such as those in Namibia, Cambodia and Eastern Slavonia, the view that these exceptional circumstances may not recur is slightly disingenuous. It is therefore necessary to develop policies that might facilitate implementation of similar operations in the future. (This is distinct from the question of whether it is appropriate for the UN to engage in such operations in the first place.)

The experiences of these earlier UN operations suggest that they will be most successful in establishing the foundations for lasting peace when:

- There is a clear political endpoint, with a time-frame accepted by all parties. (This political endpoint should be distinguished from the continuing need for development assistance.)

- There is sufficient time to plan, to obtain resources, to recruit and train appropriate staff, to establish partnerships with local actors, and to build political credibility.

- The operation’s mandate is flexible enough to accommodate to changing local conditions, and the leadership is sensitive to the changing needs of local stakeholders.

In reality, of course, such operations are likely to be established in situations of urgency, with limited time and resources, and in the absence of political certainty.

On the particular experiences of UNTAET in East Timor, the following observations may be made:

- It is necessary to make a clear distinction between the competing obligations of (i) restoring peace and security; (ii) establishing the conditions for self-government; (iii) providing development assistance; and (iv) actually governing the territory from day to day. These are not necessarily sequential phases, nor are they mutually exclusive, but do represent discrete aspects of a transitional administration. In the case of East Timor, reliance upon the limited experiences of UNMIK, where the development of civil society was constrained by continuing threats to peace and security, appears to have delayed the necessary transition to political and economic development in preparation for independence.

- Local partners should be chosen carefully and broadly. UNTAET soon established close ties with CNRT and Xanana Gusmão in particular. By embracing CNRT as representing the Timorese people, it is arguable that UNTAET prejudiced the political process it was there to oversee. Others argue that UNTAET still fails to consult meaningfully with the Timorese population.

- Local actors should be involved as early and as widely as possible. UNTAET learnt this lesson relatively quickly, and by April 2000 had at least recognized the need to transform its “Timorization” policies. In future operations, an early emphasis should be placed on building the capacity for local governance, rather than on deploying large numbers of international staff of highly uneven quality.

- Where the UN assumes the role of government, it should expect and welcome criticism appropriate to that of the sort of governance it hopes to foster. Security issues may require limits on this, but a central element in the development of local political capacity is encouraging discussion among local actors about what sort of country theirs is going to be.

- It is imperative that the United Nations sees its commitment to East Timor as an ongoing one. In particular, it would be a mistake to withdraw large numbers of troops and resources soon after presidential elections or a declaration of independence. Previous experience suggests that an election may be a very unstable point at which to disengage from a post-conflict situation. The UN and its member states have made substantial economic and political investments in East Timor, but by its own acknowledgement has not yet succeeded in establishing East Timor as a viable state. Independence will change this dynamic, putting Timorese in positions of significant authority, but should not change the obligation on the international community to complete what it has started.

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