Subject: GLW: Australia holds up UN mission

From Green Left Weekly, August 30, 2006.

EAST TIMOR: Australia holds up UN mission

Vannessa Hearman

Solidarity organisations in the United States and East Timor have accused the Australian government of holding up the extension and expansion of the United Nations mission in East Timor, in particular the deployment of peacekeeping troops under the command of the UN. On August 18 the UN Security Council, divided over the issue, extended the mission only until August 25.

According to East Timorese NGO La'o Hamutuk in a letter to "Australian friends" asking them to pressure the Howard government on the issue: "Australia is the main obstacle, refusing to 'blue-hat' your soldiers."

Australia has rejected coming under the command of a unified UN structure, preferring instead to rely on a bilateral agreement with the East Timorese government. Currently, bilateral agreements exist between all countries involved in the Combined Task Force and the Timorese government. The Combined Task Force consists of New Zealand, Portugese, Malaysian and Australian troops, deployed specifically to deal with the outbreak of violence in May.

In an August 22 letter to UN officials, later published on the La'o Hamutuk website, former UN adviser in East Timor James Dunn wrote that there is "no good reason" why Australian troops shouldn't be under UN command. He argued: "It is important that the international presence not be configured in such a way as to diminish Timor-Leste's standing as an independent state. The Australian proposal has already raised suggestions that the new nation will become a client state, one whose future is dependent on support from Canberra."

On August 25, the UN Security Council agreed to create the UN Integrated Mission in Timor Leste (UNMIT), comprising some 1600 police officers and up to 35 military liaison personnel. The Australian-led troops will remain in place and the situation will be reassessed by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan on October 25.

Australia's stance is supported by Britain and the US, while Portugal and Brazil strongly support a UN command. The US position is in line with Washington's pursuit and signing of bilateral immunity agreements with various countries, including East Timor, to exempt US forces from prosecutions in the International Criminal Court. On August 23, 2002, East Timor's foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta (now interim prime minister) signed a bilateral agreement with the US to exempt US "government employees and nationals" from the provisions of the ICC.

Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the Australian Defence Force is growing in Dili. La'o Hamutuk argues that "the performance of Australian soldiers in Timor-Leste has been erratic at best. They often relate poorly to the local people, don't understand the social and political context, and are ineffective in deterring or preventing violence." Among the ADF, "deficiencies in training, attitudes and command are evident almost every day" and goodwill towards the ADF "is wearing thin".

Two attacks against Australian police took place in Dili on August 21 and 22, including the destruction of their patrol vehicles. An Australian aid worker in Dili told Green Left Weekly that "these attacks represent a shift. For the first time, the Australian police are being targeted. There is a view that some of the police are supporting particular sides, which has likely led to this shift."

Expatriate NGO workers report of heavy-handed tactics by Australian troops against all locals, whether armed or not. Gangs of armed men continue to terrorise those sheltering in camps for displaced persons. Arson and violent attacks continue.

The August 14 budget passed by East Timor's parliament is set to double defence spending. Police numbers will increase by 250, with the extra police to be deployed into counter-insurgency reserves and the anti-riot unit. Spending overall will increase towards the 2007 general elections.

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