Subject: SCMP/Focus: Sergio Vieira de Mello: Man with a mission to create a country

South China Morning Post Monday, July 2, 2001


Man with a mission to create a country


photo: Making comparisons: The United Nations' man in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello asks that progress be measured against the chaos of two years ago. Agencies photo

Outside Sergio Vieira de Mello's office, a notice taped to the wall asks visitors to ensure their weapons are unloaded before they enter the building. It is not the sort of message that one typically encounters when calling on a diplomat, but Mr Vieira de Mello's less-than-usual surroundings reflect the rare task he has been handed. The 53-year-old Brazilian heads the United Nations mission in Dili, one of the most ambitious projects the world body has undertaken to date.

Backed by more than 8,000 troops, 1,300 police officers and legions of civilian personnel, Mr Vieira de Mello must oversee East Timor's shift from colonial outpost of neighbouring Indonesia to fully independent state.

Few outside the UN appreciate the sweeping mandate awarded to the United Nations' Transitional Administration in East Timor (Untaet) under the terms of resolution 1272. Passed in October 1999 after most Timorese voted to break away from Jakarta and the territory was destroyed by pro-Indonesian militias, it allots the body "overall responsibility for the administration of East Timor [with] all legislative and executive authority, including the administration of justice".

While the UN has administered territories elsewhere, such as Kosovo, or organised state-wide elections to pave the way for conflict resolution, as in Cambodia, Mr Vieira de Mello's powers are unprecedented. His remit is not just the rebuilding of a devastated territory, but combining that task with the creation of a government for a new state.

"What I always ask . . . visitors to East Timor is to try to remember those days in September 1999, and to see the present against that background, which many tend to forget," Mr Vieira de Mello says. "They arrive and they start to compare us with a normal developing country. So please, remember what we found when we arrived and perhaps it might be easier to remember progress achieved if you do not forget what we started from."

If his words sound somewhat defensive, they are. While Untaet has grappled with keeping the militias at bay, establishing the rudiments of an administration, rebuilding Dili and promoting reconciliation, criticisms have rained down from all directions.

While some East Timorese complain that Untaet lacks transparency, aid workers argue the UN response has been too slow and UN-attached officials pick holes in the fine print of moves to re-establish a credible banking system. There is also pervasive talk of corruption and wastage.

Given this, it seems the memories of many involved in East Timor are short indeed. Less than two years ago, the territory was still firmly held by Indonesia, while just a year back much of the militias' destruction had yet to be repaired. These days, it is set for independence next year, the schools are open, roads are maintained and Dili may still be shabby but roofs are going back on rather than going up in smoke.

Mr Vieira de Mello admits mistakes were made, especially at the outset when Untaet was moving into the vacuum left by the United Nations Mission in East Timor, which organised a 1999 referendum but was hounded out by militia violence. He adds that the UN should learn from the experience and increase its ability to respond more swiftly to future crises.

"Lessons learned? There are many as you can imagine, not least as we were not prepared to play this role, which is new as compared to classic [UN] peace-keeping roles," he says. "With the exception of Kosovo, which I know a little about since I started it, never before have we governed; fully administered a territory."

During Untaet's formative period staff learned on the job, and that process meant months of delays. Mr Vieira de Mello says he recruited some in the UN building in New York, asking them to abandon their plush desks for a country where most of the furniture had been burned or looted.

"There was no instruction manual attached to resolution 1272. So we proceeded in some areas by trial and error," Mr Vieira de Mello says. "I should have been able to press a button, as we do with the military and on the basis of standby arrangements with member states. I should have been able to bring to Dili in the early days of the mission a number of priority government expert teams, which I did not have. I had generalists [who] . . . had no experience in actual government."

With elections set for the end of next month to choose representatives to draw up a constitution, the end of the UN's dominance is in sight, although a lower-key mission subordinate to Timorese authority is a certainty. Mr Vieira de Mello says the success of UN involvement should be judged on at least four levels.

"The first one is obviously security: a stable and secure environment is probably the best legacy we can leave behind for the Timorese people. Not least because they have suffered enough. I am convinced that the vast majority want nothing but a peaceful environment for the future.

"Secondly . . . a credible, sustainable public administration, free from the vices of the past. Third, truly democratic institutions, which as you can imagine is not easy to build after close to 500 years of non-autonomous and non-self governing status in this territory. But the embryo of those institutions are there, not least an independent judiciary. Last . . . is a sustainable fiscal basis for the medium and longer term."

It is a formidable checklist and one that cannot be assessed until the fledging Timorese state has survived its first few years.

Mr Vieira de Mello says despite the many challenges faced by a people with no modern experience of self-rule, he remains optimistic.

"They may not know what democracy is but I think that they have learned what democracy is not. They have learned and they have paid a huge price for that. Can we expect perfect democratic institutions in a matter of two, 2.5 years? Of course not. I am amazed we have reached this stage with by and large a stable environment, and I am sure it will continue that way."

Jake Lloyd-Smith ( is the Post's Southeast Asian correspondent.

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