Subject: Boston Globe: Lessons of East Timor

also: Unpublished Letter in Response

The lessons of East Timor 
By Peter W. Galbraith, 5/20/2002 - Boston Globe

FROM AFGHANISTAN to the Balkans, the United Nations has been tasked with nation building in the aftermath of war and state failure. With today's transfer of sovereignty to East Timor's democratically elected government, the United Nations concludes its most ambitious and successful such effort.

Since Oct. 25, 1999, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor has been mandated with preparing the former Portuguese colony and one-time Indonesian province for independence. It has been a unique undertaking with the UN exercising full governmental powers and sovereignty over a territory for the first time in its history.

The UN agency took over an utterly devastated country. Rampaging pro-Indonesia militias had torched 70 percent of East Timor's buildings and driven nearly half of its 800,000 people out of the country. East Timor had no civil servants, no policemen, no schools, no government records, and no economy.

Over the next 30 months, the UN provided security, rebuilt destroyed buildings, returned refugees to their homes, restarted an economy, and conducted two democratic elections. Building a government from the ground up, the UN created government ministries, established courts, developed a tax system, wrote laws, chose a currency, and even picked working languages. It recruited and trained 15,000 East Timorese civil servants. Internationally, the agency normalized East Timor's relations with Indonesia and negotiated an oil and gas treaty with Australia that will double East Timor's GNP.

In spite of its low starting point, East Timor was a comparatively easy case of nation building. Many of the factors contributing success - popular support, adequate resources, and a favorable international environment - are not present in other post conflict situations.

In most circumstances, conflict does not end with as clear-cut an outcome as in East Timor. This greatly complicates the creation of viable national governments. In Bosnia, for example, the parties signed up to the Dayton Peace Agreements grudgingly and cooperate with the international presence accordingly. In Afghanistan warlords frustrate the internationally supported interim government's efforts to extend its control beyond Kabul.

Nation building requires money and people. The UN agency in East Timor had both, with a reconstruction budget equal to twice the nation's GNP and 10,000 international personnel to provide security and implement projects. As compared to the size of the country, this was a huge presence. A comparable level of effort in Afghanistan, for example, would entail a 200,000-person mission and expenditures in excess of $30 billion. The international community has been willing to make major commitments to small places, but many more people suffer in the big places.

International support is essential to nation building, but often hard to come by. Perhaps because of its strategic unimportance, the only thing most countries cared about East Timor was that the UN succeed. This enabled the mission to be organized in the most effective way, with the transitional administrator in charge of both the military and civilian components.

In Bosnia and Kosovo, political compromises necessary to establish the international presence led to a separate military command and multiple civilian organizations. At times, this has placed elements of the international presence at cross purposes. The East Timor operation also escaped the kind of great power rivalry that has hampered other missions, notably in the Balkans.

The United Nations itself has learned from its past failures in peacekeeping. Serving as an American diplomat in the Balkans during the Bosnia War, I dealt daily with a UN leadership that was rule bound, oblivious, and spineless. In East Timor, Kofi Annan's UN showed it can be flexible, efficient, and tough.

Deploying to East Timor was a major logistical exercise, brilliantly executed. When Australia pounded the tables over the agency's stance in the negotiations over oil and gas in the Timor Sea, the new UN politely told them to take a hike.

The UN succeeded in East Timor because it was given a mission possible: to take a small territory and prepare it for the independence its people wanted. People, money, and leadership produced results in East Timor. Nation building is certain to be a principal global undertaking in the decades to come. The challenge ahead is to apply the lessons of East Timor on a larger scale.

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, served as director of political affairs for the UN transitional administration and as a Cabinet member in East Timor's transitional government.

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 5/20/2002.

Unpublished Letter in Response

Peter Galbraith (The Lessons of East Timor, BG page A11, 20 May 2002) is correct to say that the lessons of East Timor should be applied to other situations. However, his view of the organisation's record in East Timor is remarkably selective on closer examination.

Many among the East Timorese population and UN staff working under Mr. Galbraith would not recognise the "flexible, efficient, tough...brilliantly executed" mission that he speaks of. For those of us who were not part of the UNTAET executive, the reality was more often interminable frustrations caused by an impenetrable, parochial and self-perpetuating bureaucracy, coupled with a lack of managerial competence and accountability within key sectors, particularly the justice system. [The well documented crisis in the Serious Crimes Unit is finally being seriously tackled but the damage has already been done to its credibility among East Timorese.]

UNTAET did achieve significant broad successes but Mr. Galbraith's underlying point that this represented relative progress for the demoralised and dysfunctional international peacekeeping endeavour should neither obscure nor excuse continuing systemic failures on the ground. Progress in addressing these nuts-and-bolts problems must come before triumphalism.

Yours faithfully,

Jon Cina 
former Legal Advisor, Serious Crimes Unit


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