Subject: CWPS: The Failure of East Timor: what to avoid in Ivory Coast

The Failure of East Timor: what to avoid in Ivory Coast

By Juan Federer*

East Timor, where the UN created the fragile state of Timor Leste barely four years ago, has once again made tragic media headlines. Despite its smallness, it is once more illustrating an important shortcoming in international politics, and as such captures top world media attention. The current chaos and the collapse of government authority clearly prove that the past nation-building efforts of the international community were insufficient to create a viable independent state in East Timor. The granting of independence after a brief 30 months of UN temporary administration, meant to create a modern state, was premature. The country had suffered too much under the 25 years brutal Indonesian occupation that followed its colonial experience under Portugal, a master that had done little to prepare it for independence. The fragility of the UN state building job has been clearly revealed by the tragic events of recent days, as the country fractures along several lines. The dramatic appeal of its governing authorities for international assistance to restore basic law and order shows that the Timor Leste state has failed and that its sovereignty’ is illusory. The costs of this failure in terms of human suffering for the Timorese population and of instability for its geographic region in South East Asia and the South Pacific are considerable. The expenses that countries contributing to the restoration of order in Timor Leste have, and will have, to bear are also significant.

Despite the past intense publicity aimed at portraying the UN state building efforts in East Timor as successful, we now see that this was not so. It may be tempting to blame “the UN” for this failure, as it has become fashionable to do when the organisation is unable to do magic in the field of peace keeping. Or it may be tempting to blame the Timor Leste authorities for their poor governance capabilities. In my view, none of these would be just. Instead, I feel that we should use the East Timor example to examine some underlying principles that govern our contemporary world affairs, and draw lessons that would be helpful to deal properly with other failing state situations. There are, after all, several such cases at present. They represent still unresolved and burdensome legacies of 20th century colonialism which continue having a serious negative impact on world peace.

As follows from the argument of my book on the subject, the failure of Timor Leste is no surprise. Together with many others, I anticipated it. The East Timorese people suffered from the unwillingness of key UN member states to commit the necessary resources to the lengthy process of state building to prepare the country - over which the UN held sovereignty- for viable independent statehood. Instead, to cut expenses, they pressed for a speedy withdrawal and the granting of a premature independence. Those locals in East Timor keen to become the new power elite eagerly encouraged this irresponsibility.

Having been so strongly geared to the dismantling of colonial empires in the past, the UN members never made the organisation pay much attention to developing a capacity to prepare colonial territories or failing post-colonial weak states for successful independent statehood. It is encouraging to note that now, may be partly as a result of the recent East Timor experience, the UN is setting up a Peace Building Commission (PBC), aimed at strengthening weak states so as to become viable in post-conflict phases. Hopefully key UN member states will muster the necessary political will to endow the PBC with the necessary resources to handle this difficult and lengthy task properly instead of just cosmetically. Strengthening of fragile states is crucial for peace, to advance democracy and prosperity. But it is a long process which requires a significant investment. The returns of this investment are well-worth it. As Timor Leste has just shown us, skimping on state building is not.

Timor Leste would benefit from a strong state building support through the PBC or by some other competent international agency. This will be the only way to ensure that a viable state is eventually put in place in East Timor. The benefits for its population and for the stability of its entire geographic region would be significant. Even if they have to pay for such state building, the longer term savings for its neighbours would be significant. Being called in to keep the peace, as Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia are doing at present is, after all, very expensive.

But Timor Leste is not an isolated case. There are many failing post-colonial state examples crying out for strong international support to restore peace and strengthen state institutions. The PBC will not be short of clients if its principals among the UN membership allow it to take on these needy clients.

Ivory Coast, a failing state in West Africa, is one particular example which I mention as I am currently involved with it. This formerly wealthy country is in urgent need of increased attention by the international community. The state is collapsing under the weight of a protracted rebellion that controls half its territory, sharpening ethnic differences, and leading to a dramatic decay in the quality of life of the population. The insufficient international peacekeeping presence prevents a full-scale civil war erupting, without however allowing a return to peace. This no-war no-peace situation also threatens the stability of the whole West African region.

In the view of many of its people, including that of the civil society organisations I am currently advising, what Ivory Coast urgently needs is a stronger commitment by the international community to empower the UN to undertake a peace-enforcement action to end the rebellion and restore government authority. Once this is achieved, a strong peace building and state strengthening program, possibly through the UN Peace Building Commission, would be appropriate. During this time, an UN-supported transitional government should conduct intensive reconciliation and civic education activities to restore national unity. The severely damaged state institutions would need to be repaired and their administrative and professional capacity strengthened. Only after the accomplishment of all this would the holding of elections for a new government be meaningful and lead to sustainable peace.

Our big question at present, which is in urgent need of an answer, is whether lessons such as those that have been provided to us by the tragic East Timor experiences have been learned by the international community? Is the political will to empower the UN to do a proper state building job in failing post colonial states going to emerge at last? This negative legacy of 20th century colonialism will not be resolved by continuing to pretend that the UN can perform magic in this field without being provided the means to strengthen fragile states. It is high time for the international community to face this reality and to master the political will to act. The birth of the UN Peace Building Commission is the perfect time to do so. The Ivory Coast is an excellent field in which to apply the lessons that East Timor has taught us. Will it be done this time around?

Center for World Peace Studies Paris May 31, 2006

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*Dr. Juan Federer had a long involvement in the liberation process of East Timor. He is Projects Director of the Center for War/Peace Studies of New York ( Currently based in Paris, he advises the Ivory Coast civil society organisation Diaspora et Jeunesse de Côte d’Ivoire which seeks a peaceful end to the Ivory Coast conflict. His book "The UN in East Timor: building Timor Leste a fragile state" (Charles Darwin University Press, 2005) decries the lack of sufficient commitment by the international community for proper state building in East Timor, anticipating the current crisis.


Charles Scheiner P.O. Box 1182, White Plains, NY 10602 USA Tel. +1-914-831-1098 or +1-914-473-3185 (mobile) email: skype: cscheiner

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