Shaping East Timor: A Dimension of United Nations Peacekeeping

Shalini Chawla, Researcher

 

Abstract

In East Timor, announcement of the results of 'popular consultation', organised by the UN, sparked off massive violence by the pro-integration militia. Organised, coordinated operations of ransacking and burning of towns and forcible displacement of thousands of East Timorese to West Timor and the hinterlands led to the total deterioration of the security situation in East Timor and thus a multinational force led by Australia was deployed to control the situation. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established with total legislative and executive powers.

East Timor is a unique case as here the UN mission is endowed with an overall responsibility for the administration of the region. UN is acting as a government in East Timor, and is facing a number of challenges in terms of bringing a stable political structure and administration in the region.

East Timor stands as a unique case of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping. Following the results of the popular consultation, organised by the UN, in which the majority supported the independence of the region, East Timor was struck by violence and terror and witnessed a humanitarian disaster. It was left battered, without economic and political structures and even basic necessities. The UN mission in the region has taken up the task of building the State of East Timor with the establishment of UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). Before East Timor, UN has never taken over the administration of a country with no pre-existing institutions. This article attempts to study and analyse this new dimension of UN peace- keeping. Also, an examination is attempted of the kind of challenges UN faces in East Timor, which emerge both from within and outside its structure.

Background of the East Timor Crisis and Entry of the United Nations

The United Nations General Assembly placed East Timor on the international agenda in 1960, and East Timor was added to the UN's list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. At that time, East Timor was administered by Portugal. In 1974, Portugal sought to establish a provisional government and a popular assembly which would determine the status of East Timor. Civil war broke out between those who favoured independence and those who advocated integration with Indonesia. Portugal, unable to control the situation, withdrew, and Indonesia intervened militarily and later integrated East Timor as its 27th province. The United Nations never recognised this integration, and both the Security Council and the General Assembly called for Indonesia's withdrawal.

Beginning in 1982, the UN General Assembly took initiatives and regular talks were held with Indonesia and Portugal, aimed at resolving the status of the territory. In 1998, Indonesia proposed limited autonomy for East Timor. Following this proposal, the talks made rapid progress and resulted in a set of agreements between Indonesia and Portugal, signed in New York on May 5, 1999.1 This agreement noted the different positions of Indonesia and Portugal on the issue of East Timor's future, but both signed a statement saying that in order to further the peace process, the Secretary General "should consult the East Timorese people on the constitutional framework for autonomy".2 It was decided that this would involve a UN-administered referendum to decide if the East Timorese accepted or rejected the proposed autonomy.3 The two governments entrusted the Secretary General with organising and conducting a "popular consultation".

United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET)

On June 11, 1999 the Security Council established United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) in its resolution 1246 (1999). The vote in East Timor was in fact the second such major operation by the United Nations to run a fair poll in its entirety. The first was the 1993 Cambodian elections under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), in which the United Nations wrote the electoral law, registered voters, and supervised the polls.4 What was different or unique about UNAMET was that it gave the sole responsibility for security to the Indonesian Police (Polri), as stipulated in the May 5 Agreement. UNAMET, went into East Timor without the protection of armed UN peacekeeping troops. The agreement also prescribed the absolute neutrality of the Polri and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) in the referendum process. The duties of the Indonesian police included protection of UN staff, disarmament of armed groups, and the supervision of ballot papers and boxes while in transit.5

UNAMET became operational at a very rapid pace.6 The mission included 240 international staff, 270 civilian police, 50 military liaison offices, 425 UN volunteers, and 668 local East Timorese staff for translation and driving (plus 3,600 East Timorese who were hired for five days to run the actual referendum). The total cost of the operation was estimated at US $52.5 million, relying on pledged contributions from UN member states.7 One-third of the contribution came from Australia, other contributions included those from Finland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, and Portugal. Despite an extremely tight timetable, a high level of tension, and the territory's mountainous terrain, poor roads and difficult communications, UNAMET registered 451,792 potential voters among the population of over 800,000 in East Timor and abroad. On voting day, August 30, 1999, some 98 per cent of registered voters went to the polls deciding by a margin of 94,388 (21.5 per cent) to 344,580 (78.5 per cent) to reject the proposed autonomy and begin a process of transition towards independence.8

Post-Consultation Violence and the Deployment of INTERFET

Following ballot day the security situation in East Timor deteriorated, and after the results were announced, there was an eruption of violence. Pro-integration militias conducted organised, coordinated operations through population centres, ransacking towns and forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of East Timorese to West Timor and the hinterlands. Moving from town to town and village to village, they looted and burnt every house. Until mass graves are investigated, no one will know how many people they murdered as well. The punitive destruction of East Timor in September 1999 invites comparison with classical antecedents, such as the razing and salting of ancient Carthage or the sacking of Troy.9 In a three week campaign, so called Operation Clean Sweep, Indonesian armed forces and locally organised militia executed hundreds, possibly thousands of East Timorese. In the chilling language of the orders they received, they began by killing those 15 years and older, including both males and females without exception.10

East Timor provided fresh evidence of the limit of UN peacekeeping. The Security Council cannot or will not forcefully intervene until catastrophe strikes, even when it has good reason to anticipate such catastrophe.11 It is clear, that the most direct responsibility for the events in East Timor rest squarely with the Indonesian authorities: they flagrantly and deliberately breached the commitments into which they entered in the agreements signed on May 5, 1999 in New York. Also, UN failed to examine and anticipate the consequences of rejection of autonomy. There was a gross underestimation of resistance which the East Timor initiative would generate in Indonesia. The psychology of illegitimate conquerors was misunderstood. Such conquerors tend to engage in incessant attempts to persuade themselves of the rectitude of their position, ultimately getting to the stage of believing their own propaganda. In such cases, the emotional attachment to a territory is out of proportion to any rational assessment of interests. With such emotional factors at work, it is fatal to rely on the goodwill of the conquerors to make a transition run smoothly.

The May 5, 1999 Agreement, by making no provision for a military component in UNAMET, made the mission and the Timorese people hostage to the good faith and goodwill of whoever exercised power in East Timor.

Interfet

In East Timor, violence produced a different response. Both the Portuguese and the Australians demanded Security Council action, and the Australians offered to lead a multinational force – a "coalition of the willing", in the new UN phrase.12

On September 13, President B.J. Habibie conveyed to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that he would accept the Australian led force. The Security Council, in its resolution 1264 (1999) of September 15, 1999, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, authorised the establishment of a multinational force empowered to use all necessary measures to restore peace and security in East Timor. Consultations being facilitated by the secretariat, between Australia and Indonesia in New York, and the commanders of the International Force, East Timor (INTERFET) and TNI in Dili, the Australian-led force began deployment on September 20 and moved quickly to establish itself. This was perhaps the swiftest response in the history of UN peacekeeping.

Establishment of INTERFET troops for East Timor was considered a dangerous venture with nationalism on the rise in Jakarta. Security Council provided INTERFET with fairly robust rules of engagement. Fears that the multinational force could face high level aggression from pro-Jakarta militia proved unfounded and slowly, the INTERFET forces were able to enter into the main regional towns in East Timor; without serious threats posed by the militia groups.13

INTERFET has had a free hand in securing East Timor. It was able to secure the countryside and organise the distribution of relief supplies. But the main challenge to INTERFET was not from the militia, but the retrieval of as many as 260,000 East Timorese forcibly transported to West Timor.

The Australian led multinational force allowed the United Nations, through its UNAMET mission, to begin large-scale humanitarian relief to the shattered region. Also, the establishment of security played an important role in convincing Indonesia of the futility of attempting to hold East Timor in part or in full. Consequently, on September 28, at a meeting between Indonesia and Portugal, Indonesia agreed in principle, to transfer all authority over East Timor to the UN.

Establishment of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor

In the event of a vote for independence, the UN had originally planned a three stage process. Following the ballot, conducted by the UNAMET, there was to have been a precarious two-to-three month period until the Indonesian People's Consultative Assembly announced in November whether it accepted or rejected the results. During this time, a small follow-on-mission, UNAMET II, would prepare for a longer-term UN presence. Finally, UNAMET III was to have been established as a full scale transitional authority to oversee the gradual withdrawal of Indonesia's military units and administrative apparatus, and assume control itself.14

But the post-ballot violence disrupted the orderly transfer of power to the UN. On October 19, 1999, the Indonesian People's Consultative Assembly formally recognised the result of the consultation. On October 25, the UN Security Council, by resolution 1272 (1999), acting under chapter VII of the charter of UN, established the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) as an integrated, multi dimensional, peacekeeping operation fully responsible for the administration of East Timor during its transition to independence, which initially covers the period through January 31, 2001. UNTAET was "endowed with overall responsibility for the administration of East Timor" and also "empowered to exercise all legislative and executive authority, including the administration of justice".15

UNTAET's mandate consists of the following elements:

(a) To provide security and maintain law and order throughout the territory of East Timor;

(b) To establish an effective administration;

(c) To assist in the development of civil and social services;

(d) To ensure the coordination and delivery of humanitarian assistance, rehabilitation and development assistance;

(e) To support capacity building for self-government;

(f) To assist in the establishment of conditions for sustainable development.16

UNTAET with a governance and public administrative component, military component of up to 8,950 troops and up to 200 military observers has been authorised by the Security Council to "take all necessary measures to fulfil its mandate".17

Immediately following the establishment of UNTAET, the mission established its headquarters in Dili and began the deployment of personnel. The hand over of command and military operations from INTERFET to UNTAET was completed on February 28, 2000.

Governing the Nation: A Peacekeeping Dimension

"The organisational and judicial status of the UN in East Timor is comparable with that of a pre-constitutional monarch in a sovereign kingdom".18 The UNTAET is not only helping the new country's government but it is, itself, that government. UNTAET signs treaties and also issues postage. Even the "Governor's House", which served as headquarters for both Portugese and then the Indonesian colonial administrations, is occupied by the UN.

In the last decade, UN has taken many national responsibilities in Cambodia, Namibia, Eastern Slovania and Mozambique and plays a similar role in Kosovo. But before East Timor, UN had never taken over the administration of a country with no preexisting institutions whatsoever. UN exercises a free hand in East Timor, as the Security Council Resolution 1272 (1999) has effectively granted it absolute power, although it makes clear that the rationale for that power is to give birth to a free-standing and democratic Timorese state.

There is no question about UN's initiative to act as a nation-builder, but its competence to fulfil its aim is definitely questionable.

In all aspects UNTAET is the formal government of East Timor and both legislative and executive powers are in the hands of a single individual, the special representative of the Secretary General and Transitional Administrator, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who is also the head of the UN's office for the coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Thus, UNTAET's legislative and executive powers make it unique, as it is the first time sovereignty has been granted to the UN independently of any competing authority. Resolution 1272 became the instrument for bestowing sovereignty over East Timor to the UN even though it did not explicitly use the term. Also, UN achieved a form of statehood in East Timor in the agreements with the financial institutions. The World Bank's International Development Association (IDA) was designated as the trustee of the reconstruction trust fund for East Timor. The IDA can provide funds to sovereign governments or public international organisations, according to its Articles of Agreement. The trust fund's terms of reference treat UNTAET as a separate government rather than a part of the UN as an international organisation. The Grant Agreement of the Community Empowerment and Local Governance Project (CEP), the first joint project between UNTAET and the World Bank, defined the recipients as East Timor and UNTAET. Also, it had to be signed by the Transitional Administrator as the head of state, and not only as a representative of the UN.

The CEP came up with the intention of facilitating the establishment of elected villages and sub-district councils. There was a provision that block grants were to be provided directly to each sub-district, and the development priorities would be decided by them based on proposals submitted by the villages. It was, in fact, designed to be an introduction to local democracy, as well as a functioning form of self-determination in the reconstruction process.

UNTAET is a unique case and UN has taken up the overall responsibility to shape the shattered region, but it's capability to perform that task successfully is not certain. UN's functioning has not been rapid and gaps are also observed. In East Timor it is a very peculiar and urgent situation: UNTAET could not pay it's Timorese employees, for example until it had devised a banking law and settled on a currency. Also without a body of criminal law, it could not punish lawbreakers. The alternative would be to rule by decree, but this would go against the spirit of it's mission and undermine the UN's larger goal of fostering democratic values. So, the first statute the transitional administration passed was one that delineated it's own authority and stipulated that Indonesian law would remain in force unless it conflicted with UN's Human Rights standards or with the UNTAET mandate.19 The second new law set up a "National Consultative Council" to give the Timorese a say in the legislative process. The other laws also established a judicial system, a fiscal authority, a civil service, a tax regime and a currency(US dollar). James Traub views East Timor as an " exercise in adapting ideals to painful realities". Hans Strohmeyer, a German legal scholar, a counsel to the transitional administrator, who served in Kosovo, also, described the difference between the two missions by saying, "In Kosovo, we had judges, lawyers, prosecutors, the trouble was finding one who didn't have a Yugoslav post or a Serbian collaborator post. Here we don't have a single lawyer." 20 In East Timor the Dili court house had been utterly trashed and militias had burnt or stolen every single law book.

In East Timor, the task of the new bureaucrats is not just to provide people with what they lack, but also they need to train people to take up the work themselves. In Mozambique and Eritrea also, UN more or less invented the civil service, but in East Timor the problem is that very few carry even the least credentials. And so, East Timor needs much more than just material.

UNTAET has been slow in providing jobs and housing and thus is becoming a genuine target of resentment in the region. As the only people in East Timor with jobs are the ones who work for the UN or the international non-profit organisations ( if a person does not speak Portugese, then this option remains closed). There have been reported incidents, where De Mello himself was embarassed by the mission and the increasingly obvious problems outside, notably large crowds gathering to seek jobs.

But the UN is not wrong in demanding patience as it has not been operating in East Timor for a very long time.

Threats to East Timor

INTERFET performed a commendable task of securing the Timorese, but still it is evident that the TNI, or some hard-line elements within it, have yet to accept defeat. Many veterans, who fought in the former Portuguese colony, after it was invaded in December 1975, are bitter about having to give up their 25 year struggle to keep East Timor within the Indonesian nation. Such strong sentiments are not confined to military circles in Indonesia. Last year's militias, who were armed with pipeguns and matches, are now equipped with automatic rifles and grenades. UN spokesmen in Dili and along the West-East Timorese border also assert that it is obvious that they have also received some rudimentary training in guerrilla tactics.21

Since May 2000, as many as 150 militiamen in eight to ten groups, each of five to thirty men, have crossed the 170 km border from West Timor, which since the UN intervention last year, has become one of the most heavily defended frontiers in Southeast Asia. East Timor, today, seems to be confronted with another crisis, based on the long-term guerrilla warfare (rather than only punishing the ones who opted for secession from Indonesia).22

Attacks on UN peacekeepers have been reported.23 Several sensitive border areas are now patrolled regularly, with the aim being to isolate the militias in their mountain hideouts to prevent them from reaching the local masses.

It is difficult to ascertain, as to what extent the support for the militias is a local initiative, or is it sanctioned by Indonesian authorities. Erico Gueterres,24 the most notorious of the militia leaders was, a few months ago appointed Chief of the Benteng Pemuda, the parliamentary youth wing of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle(PDI-P). Following immense pressure from the international front, Indonesia was forced to arrest him, but not much is expected to change, as Gueterres remains well connected. Also, it is assumed that he is well protected by powerful interests in Indonesia. There is a growing suspicion that the militias may be trying to establish a more permanent base in East Timor, and this raises serious questions about the viability of an independent East Timor.

The basic problem is that the force that was destined to become East Timor's own army, the armed force for the liberation of East Timor (Forcas Armadas de Libertacao Nacional de Timor Leste- FALINTIL), is in shambles. INTERFET's mandate included disarming all local factions, the militia and the FALINTIL. Asserting that FALINTIL was not involved in the human rights abuses, FALINTIL's leaders objected to the INTERFET mandate. As a result of this, a compromise was reached and they were allowed to retain their army and arms, but only inside a cantonment in the town of Aileu (south of Dili). Today, transforming FALINTIL into the nucleus of an armed force for an independent East Timor appears remote. The UN mandate does not incorporate turning FALINTIL into a more professional force. This is a problem which certainly requires focus. The UN's fragmented structure has apparently added to the confusion. 'Sector West', in the UN's terminology, comprises 1,634 Australian troops, 665 from New Zealand, 158 from Nepal, 191 from Fiji and 40 from Ireland. This, being the most important line of defence against the militias in West Timor and their Indonesian backers, has high vigilance, with radar and heat detectors scanning the border. Despite these measures, a militia gang has once managed to cross the border. The Portuguese troops do little patrolling, and have been criticised for their lax attitude to East Timor's increasing security problems. 25

East Timor definitely needs to build up a defence structure in order to hold its independence. But what is most required is Indonesia's acceptance of the fact that East Timor is no longer it's 27Th province.

Regional Players: a Perspective

East Timor's bloody transition to independence has profoundly affected Indonesia's relations with Australia, and the stability of the state which is struck by sectarian fighting, ethnic conflict and separatist violence in West Papua and many other parts of the archipelago.

Australia responded actively and led the multinational force to control the acts of violence. It was Australia's willingness to lead the multinational operation that was a crucial determinant in INTERFET's speedy deployment. INTERFET has also assisted the humanitarian operation and the repatriation of over 11,000 refugees to East Timor. Australian support was seen as a victory of those elements in Australia who had throughout the previous 25 years supported independence of East Timor. Indonesia reacted by cancelling the 1995 Australia-Indonesia Agreement on Maintaining Security. There was considerable Indonesian political and public opposition to Australia's leading the force and supplying most of the troops. Australia is greatly concerned about Indonesia's security, as it is vital to Australia. An attack on Australia is most likely to come from or via Indonesia. Indonesia sees it's key relationship within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN) of which Australia is not a member.26Australia's role is motivated by it's own security concerns. Australia's considerable security, economic and humanitarian interests, find a convenient place under the UN banner. East Timor's proximity is a security issue in itself. At the least, prolonged disorder may generate refugees. In May 1995, a boat carrying 18 East Timorese asylum seekers arrived in Australia's northern waters. Australia fears that this may be a regular occurrence if order breaks down.27

An important factor, contributing to the Australian involvement, apart from geographical contiguity, could be Australia's national interest in the quest to be a serious regional power. The quiescence of the ASEAN battered it's international image. ASEAN's inaction at the start of the crisis in East Timor surrendered the moral and political high ground to Australia and ASEAN's effectiveness was seriously questioned.

ASEAN's timid response to the East Timor crisis can be attributed to the mitigating political circumstances.28 ASEAN considered East Timor as an internal matter of Indonesia, which it would solve by itself. There was a sense that because the Indonesian military was involved, no ASEAN state wanted to displease an institution that in the minds of most ASEAN elites would outlive any presidency in Indonesia. Another important factor was that a strained relationship with Indonesia, could be a source of tension and instability in the region. Saving ASEAN and keeping it intact was a more significant concern, from the perspective of ASEAN. But despite the reservations ASEAN held, it's response to INTERFET proved more robust and substantial than many outside the region expected. The way was open to the ASEAN participation when Indonesia dropped it's objections to the UN presence. Nevertheless, despite their tight budgets and an initial reluctance towards involvement, ASEAN has made a substantial political and military contribution to INTERFET and UNTAET. Without ASEAN participation, the UN's already formidable peacemaking and peacekeeping challenge would have been far greater. Also, East Timor's future prospects would have been even more uncertain.

Conclusion

UN peacekeeping has changed drastically over the years and is no longer confined to monitoring ceasefire agreements. The case of East Timor is a good example of the new generation of peacekeeping missions. East Timor is a case of peacekeeping which clearly depicts the emerging nature of humanitarian intervention which has been on an increase in the post-Cold War era.

East Timor poses a different question and highlights a different dimension of peacekeeping. But UN, despite it's ability to take up such a mission, is probably not yet prepared to administer territories in transition.. The Secretary General himself stated, "The Organization had never before attempted to build and manage a State. Nor did it have an opportunity to prepare for this assignment; the team in East Timor had to be assembled ad hoc and still lacks important expertise in a number of fields."29In this case, UN does not have to achieve just peace and negotiate with the warring factions, but is required to do much more. It needs to foster political stability, economic development, and reliable and responsive democratic institutions. It remains to be seen if UN will be able to tackle this challenge effectively.

 

NOTES

1. For details of the negotiations leading to the May 5 Agreement see, A/54/654, December 13, 1999, General Assembly, Fifty-fourth session, Agenda item 96: "Question of East Timor."

2. Leonard C. Sebastian and Anthony L. Smith, " The East Timor Crisis, A Test Case for Humanitarian Intervention" in, Southeast Asian Affairs 2000, (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000), p.70.

3. The May 5 Agreement states that if the East Timorese voted to reject the autonomy then Indonesia would have to undertake the legal steps necessary to restore East Timor's status prior to July 17, 1976 ( the date of East Timor's Official annexation by Indonesia) in order to begin the transition to independence.

4. Sebastian and Smith, n.2, p.71.

5. Ibid.

6. On June 12, the Civilian Police Commissioner arrived in Dili and began working with an advance team of United Nations civilian police. By June 15, four of the eight regional electoral offices of UNAMET were operational, and the Chief Electoral Officer had arrived to lead a core electoral team already in place. By the end of June, the Chief Military Liaison Officer had arrived in East Timor.

7. Sebastian and Smith, n.2, p.71.

8. Internet site, <http://www.un.org/peace/etimor/UntaetB.htm>

9. Jarat Chopra," The UN's Kingdom of East Timor", Survival, vol.42,no.3,autumn 2000, p.27.

10. The UN had obtained at least two critical documents before the August vote: an options paper and contingency planning assessment by H.R Garnadi of the Indonesian Coordinating Ministry of Politics and Security, dated July 3, 1999; and orders dated July 17, 1999 from Joao da Silva Tavares, Commander-in-Chief of the pro-integration forces, to the individual militia commanders regarding a campaign of violence in the event of defeat at the polls.(from which the quote of the text is taken), as cited by, Jarat Chopra, n.9, p.27.

11. James Traub, " Inventing East Timor", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2000, p.p.78-79.

12. Ibid, p.79.

13. The only high profile engagement occurred on October 10, 1999 when INTERFET troops clashed with a group of Indonesian security personnel along East Timor's border with East Nsa Tenggara, which resulted in the death of an Indonesian policeman.

14. Chopra, n.9,p.28.

15. S/RES/1272(1999), October 25, 1999.

16. Ibid.

17. Peacekeeping has been divided into three sectors for peacekeeping purposes: West, with 2,200 men from Australia and New Zealand, with smaller contingents from Fiji, Nepal and Ireland; Central with 1,026 men from Portugal and a company of Kenyan troops; and East, with 1,636 men from Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea. In addition, there are 724 Jordanian troops in the Oecussi enclave, which belongs to East Timor, and 2,050 engineers from Bangladesh and Pakistan, plus more personnel from other countries such as Norway and Denmark stationed at the headquarters in Dili.

18. Chopra, n.9, p.29.

19. James Traub, n.11, p.82.

20. Ibid.

21. "East Timor: Can it Stand Alone?", Janes Intelligence Review, November 2000, p.41.

22. Ibid.

23. The first attack on UN peacekeepers came on June 21 when a group of militiamen hurled six hand grenades at an Australian Army position at Aidabasalala, 15 km from the border. On July 24, a New Zealand soldier was shot dead near the border with West Timor.

24. A year back he commanded one of East Timor's most vicious militia forces, the Aitarak( Thorn).

25. Janes Intelligence Review, n.22, p.43.

26. Peter Lewis Young, " Australia-Indonesia Relations-never the same again?", Asian Defence Journal, September 2000, p.5.

27. James Cotton," 'Peacekeeping' in East Timor: An Australian Policy Departure", Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol.53, no.3,1999, p.244.

28. See, Alan Dupont, "ASEAN's Response to the East Timor Crisis", Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol.54, no.2, 2000.

29. Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (for the period January 27–July 26, 2000), S/2000/738, July 26, 2000.