Subject: James Dunn on A Continuing UN Presence in East Timor?

A Continuing UN Presence in East Timor?

James Dunn

East Timor or Timor-Leste as it is called these days, has rarely made the news in the past year. It deserves more attention right now, for the future role of the UN Mission is under scrutiny, and that also means this country's involvement. While we have played an important part since the Interfet intervention in 1999, aspects of Australia's current policy are less attuned to the national interests of the new nation.

On 20 May the mandate of UNMISET, the successor mission to UNTAET, will come to an end, and that could mean the withdrawal of hundreds of advisers, CIVPOL officers, health assistance and, not least, the peacekeeping force, the PKF, of which the Australian contingent is the largest part. Last week the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, presented a report to the Security Council on the situation in the new republic, and on what role the UN should play in the future. For the next three or four weeks the Security Council will be deliberating on whether to continue a UN role after UNMISET's mandate expires, and if so what form it should take. It comes at a time when the UN resources are under pressure, but nevertheless the UNIMISET mission is likely to be extended, though with its size and activities significantly reduced.

Kofi Annan continues to maintain a special interest in a territory in whose liberation he played a leading role. Although East Timor may only be a relatively small country, UNTAET was the biggest UN operation of its kind, and the most successful. To have brought a nation in total devastation, totally without any state infrastructure, to independence in less than two and a half years was a truly remarkable achievement. For this we have much to thank the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, who lost his life in a Baghdad bombing last year. The follow-up work of UNMISET, which is now ably led by Karmalesh Sharma, a distinguished former Indian diplomat, has helped ensure further good progress, but it will be some years before the objectives the East Timorese leaders set themselves will be achieved.

After two visits just before Christmas, I also concluded that East Timor's success has been impressive, taking into account its tragic past, and its continuing low level of economic development. The latest report UN reports presents a positive but frank account of where Timor-Leste is at this time, and makes the case for a continuing UN role. It is a report Australians should read with circumspection, for it touches on a less than positive role being played by our Government. In particular there is the question of the renegotiation of the Timor Gap maritime boundary, which in its present form was demarcated in an illegal agreement between Australia and Indonesia back in the eighties. In the UN report the essential importance of Timor Leste's access to its fair share of the rich resources of the Timor Gap area is stressed . It is not a matter of the nation becoming wealthy - the resources will have been exhausted in about twenty years. It is a matter of giving Timor a boost necessary if it is to attain a measure of economic independence. Australia is taking an unbending, even arrogant, position over these negotiations, with the apparent intention of blocking Timorese access to a fairer share of the resources involved. One minister confided to me his fears that the resources will have been exhausted by the time the negotiations are settled!

In the general the UN reports that security in East Timor is in good shape, though a number of incidents involving minor clashes between the police, the PNTL and the new East Timorese defence force, the FFDTL are matters of some concern, highlighting problems in the defining of areas of authority and cooperation. In the area of security Kofi Annan proposes that about 130 UN police and a small PKF force, amounting to 350 personnel be included in the new mission. This continued presence has been strongly requested by Timor Leste leaders. For reasons that don't really make sense, Australia has decided to oppose this level of PKF involvement. The argument that the threat involving the military and militia remnants no longer exists is unconvincing. While the TNI commanders who ordered the killings and destruction in 1999 continue to occupy senior command posts, and while the Indonesian generals retain considerable political power and influence, a degree of threat must remain. Sure, the border situation is quiet, but the UN report describes it as being 'porous'. Security breaches have, if on a small scale, have occurred, and militia elements still exist. As for future trends our conclusions should await outcome of the forthcoming Indonesian presidential elections. What if Wiranto were to win, a prospect that cannot be ruled out? If the TNI were to choose such a course, it would not take much to create a very serious situation in Timor-Leste. The present scenario highlights the need for a tribunal that would fully expose the past role of the TNI commanders, and in so doing hopefully provide a healthier basis for relations between Indonesia and the new nation.

A related subject of ongoing concern, noted in the UN report, is Timor's justice system, which is described as remaining "particularly weak"..... with negative implications for the functioning of the police and prison services". Shortage of judges and defence lawyers has seriously affected the functioning of courts outside Dili. It is a worry, but not an unexpected situation, for justice systems are not developed overnight. The system needs to be seen as fair and effective before it can win the public respect essential to its proper functioning.

Support ETAN, make a secure financial contribution at

Back to February menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu