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Peace-keepers as Nation-builders: 
Dilemmas of the UN in East Timor

Published in International Peacekeeping. Vol. 8, no 4 (2001).



The UN mission in East Timor is the most comprehensive transitional administration undertaken by the UN to date. While having a combined function of peacekeeping and civil administration, UNTAET was shaped by the standard procedures and principles developed for ordinary peacekeeping. This entailed a short time-scale for completion, international staff centrally recruited, no requirement for local expertise, no provisions for local capacity building, and no initial structures for local participation. Yet the purpose was to prepare the territory for independence. The lessons of UNTAET suggest that peacekeeping-cum-governance missions should be separated, not integrated, contrary to the Brahimi Report’s recommendation.



The UN mission in East Timor, variously described as an unprecedented ‘governance’ or ‘nation-building’ mission, has come to be regarded as something of a test case. Already in February 2000, the British ambassador to the Security Council suggested that it could be a model for future UN ‘nationbuilding missions’.i Yet the mission suffered throughout from an underlying contradiction between the UN structure that shaped it - which outfitted the mission with classic peacekeeping tools – and its mandate, which was to prepare the Timorese for independence.

When the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established in late 1999, it was generally accepted in the UN system that peacebuilding missions had different requirements than conventional peacekeeping operations. The point was articulated in the Brahimi report, released just a few months later, which affirmed that complex governance missions could not be cut from a conventional peacekeeping cloth, or treated institutionally as a peacekeeping operation with a civilian governance function attached.ii Yet, UNTAET was shaped by procedures that had developed as part of standard UN peacekeeping. The mission was planned and operated under the auspices of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), which had little experience with governance. Most of the budget was assessed, i.e. based on non-voluntary contributions from UN members, which entailed pressure to complete the operation as soon as possible to prevent an open-ended drain on UN finances. Following standard UN practice, the staff for the civilian administration was internationally recruited with little regard for local expertise, as was the military component. No structures were built into the mission for Timorese participation, either in the administration or through political consultations. Unlike the UN mission in Kosovo, which was launched only a few months earlier, UNTAET did not even have a dedicated unit for institution building on par with its other main functions.

Given the nature of ‘peace- or ‘nationbuilding’, a long time frame and substantial local participation would seem critical for a successful mission. ‘The UN’s role,’ as Amnesty International pointed out, ‘is not to deliver a country and a system to the East Timorese but to enable them to decide for themselves what kind of country they want.’iii Indeed, the failure to include participatory mechanisms from the outset put UNTAET on a difficult course vis-à-vis the local population. The slow pace of ‘Timorization’ became the perhaps most vexing issue facing the UN mission. Why, then, was UNTAET moulded in conventional peacekeeping form? And what are the implications for future missions of this kind?

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Towards Unprecedented Involvement

Security Council Resolution 1272 of 25 October 1999 gave UNTAET mandate to provide security and maintain law and order, establish an effective administration, assist in the development of civil and social services, ensure co-ordination and delivery of humanitarian assistance, rehabilitation and development assistance, support capacity-building for self-government, and assist in the establishment of conditions for sustainable development. Without specifically saying so, the UN had ultimate authority of a kind that in the contemporary international system is reserved for sovereign states.

The East Timor mission was the most comprehensive transitional administration undertaken by the UN during the 1990s.iv In Cambodia, the UN had assisted the existing government to develop a post-war political structure. In Kosovo, the UN had assumed full governing authority but not sovereignty; the peace agreement in June 1999 affirmed that Kosovo was a province of Serbia whose eventual status would be determined at a later date. East Timor in 1999, by contrast, was in UN-terms a non-self- governing territory, and the UN mission was precisely to prepare it for independence. The closest in sovereignty terms was the transition in Namibia, where the UN briefly took over the trusteeship previously held by South Africa Yet here the UN relied on the South African administration during the transition to independence. In East Timor, an early directive noted, ‘UNTAET will proceed to establish its administrative capacity throughout all sectors of governance and administration.’v

The direct role assumed in 1999 reflects a much longer UN involvement. Refusing to accept Indonesia’s occupation in 1975, the UN had adopted Portugal’s view that East Timor remained a non-self-governing territory. This gave the UN Secretary-General authority (under Chapter XI, Art 73(e)) to concern himself with the territory. In 1982, instead of passing the annual resolution calling on Indonesia to withdraw, the General Assembly asked the Secretary- General to ‘initiate consultations with all parties directly concerned’ (Res 37/30). This led to the Tripartite Talks among Portugal, Indonesia and the UN, and gave the Secretariat an institutional niche to mediate. The opportunity for change came in mid-1998 when the Suharto regime in Indonesia collapsed. The new UN Secretary-General had considerable interest in human rights and decided to deepen his involvement. At the Tripartite Talks in October 1998, Kofi Annan’s Personal Representative to East Timor presented a proposal for East Timorese autonomy. It was in response to this initiative that the new Indonesian president, Habibie, announced the surprise ‘second option’, i.e. that if the East Timorese did not accept autonomy, he would grant them independence.

The terms of the ‘second option’ were spelled out in the important agreement of 5 May 1999, which allowed the UN Secretary-General to hold a referendum (‘popular consultation’) to ascertain the wishes of the East Timorese. Unlike most other elections in which the UN has been involved, the referendum was not merely monitored, but prepared, conducted and verified by a UN mission (UNAMET). The prominence of the UN reflected the existence of partial and conflicting authority claims: Indonesia had de facto but not de jure control, Portugal had de jure authority but none de facto, and the East Timorese independence movement, Conselho National da Resistencia Timorense (CNRT), had a wide international solidarity network and a Nobel prize winner, but no formal international standing and only a one-man lobby at the UN. Between these claims the UN appeared an impartial broker to carry out the referendum.

This historical trajectory goes some way to explain why the UN assumed full governing power when, after the referendum, violence erupted and Indonesian authorities withdrew. The path was staked out in the May 5 Agreement, which specified that if the East Timorese voted to leave Indonesia, then Portugal and Indonesia would agree to ‘a peaceful and orderly transfer of authority in East Timor to the United Nations’, which would initiate the process towards independence (Art.6). In other words, the UN would be the sovereign authority in an interim period.

The formula did not necessarily exclude Timorese participation in the political and administrative structures during the transition period. The issue was raised at the time by both the Timorese independence movement and its Yet UNTAET was established as an exclusively UN-staffed entity, and political mechanisms for local consultation were gradually added as the Timorese and donor governments pressed for greater ‘Timorization’.

A main reason for the initial non-inclusion of Timorese in the transitional administration is found in the continuation of the political logic that had underpinned the May 5 Agreement. The Timorese had not participated directly in the negotiations leading to the Agreement. Given strong opposition in the Indonesian military to let the territory go, attempts to include the Timorese would probably have derailed the talks. The Timorese made their inputs through the Portuguese and the UN delegations. The latter was headed by the PRSG (Jamshid Marker, a Pakistani diplomat), with staff support from the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA). The UN staff regularly consulted the CNRT president Jose Alexandro ‘Xanana’ Gusmão - accessible in his Jakarta jail and subsequent house arrest - and exiled Nobel Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta. The informal consultations were evidently close and frequent, earning DPA officials a reputation in the Secretariat for being favourable to the Timorese.

The CNRT leadership readily accepted Art.6 of the agreement which stipulated transfer of authority to the UN during the transition to independence. Indeed, the CNRT’s long-standing position had been that the Timorese needed a gradual preparation for independence – Gusmão had in 1986 called for a phased transition to independence under UN tutelage. Their overriding worry during the negotiation was that the May 5 Agreement left Indonesia in charge of security during the referendum, permitting only an unarmed UN presence.

The security concerns of the CNRT and their supporters were shared at the highest level in the UN Secretariat. Over the summer, the Secretary-General regularly reported to the Security Council that the Indonesian army was complicit in the growing violence that was unleashed on the East Timorese as the ballot date grew near.vii However, the weak Indonesian government could not, or would not, reign in the military. Nor would key members of the Security Council pressure Indonesia. As violence mounted, UN negotiators as well as the Timorese leaders concentrated their attention on ways to improve security conditions, including an international security presence, so that the consultation process could go ahead. The precise role of the East Timorese during the transition period was left for later determination.

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Enter UNTAET: Political Constraints on Planning

When the referendum produced a decisive ‘no’ to continued integration with Indonesia (78.5% as against 21.5), and the Indonesian army launched the Timorese militia on a scorched earth campaign, this did not immediately change the Security Council calculus that in the preceding months had favoured caution. Between 3 September, when the results of the referendum were announced and violence erupted, and 7 September, when the Security Council demonstrated concern by sending a mission to Indonesia, the Council was reluctant to take action, maintaining that it was the responsibility of the government of Indonesia to provide security in East Timor.viii It took another 8 days before the Security Council authorized an international military intervention - the Australian-led INTERFET - and only after reluctant agreement had been extracted from the Indonesian government. By Security Council standards, this was rapid; for the victims on the grounds and a shocked international audience, the pace seemed glacial. In the interim period, around one thousand persons were killed and the territory laid waste.

As the partially open debate in the Security Council shows, the concern not to offend or further destabilize Indonesia mainly accounted for the delay; there was also the sovereignty issue. Indonesia had strong support in the Council from Malaysia and other non-aligned states. The United States wished to deal with the conflict in a manner that served its long-standing interests in maintaining good relations with Indonesia and was conducive to regional order and stability. China and Russia held similar views, and additionally worried about setting a precedent for uninvited interventions. In a longer-term perspective, it was evident that independent but tiny East Timor would remain in the shadow of Indonesia. The more acceptable the transition was to Jakarta, the better the prospects for future relations.

The constitutive principles of the emerging UN state of East Timor reflected in some respects the political logic in the Security Council that embodied caution and consensus. The least divisive stance was simply to restate the provision in the May 5 Agreement that stipulated transfer of authority to the UN in case of a ‘no’ vote. This the Security Council did on 15 September in a brief and non-controversial item in the resolution authorising an Australian-led military force to end the violence (Res.1264/1999). The second, implicit message was that, in deference to Indonesian sensibilities, the East Timorese resistance movement should keep a low profile in the governing structures of the transitional state. This was the perception of some key persons in the planning process, and it is reflected in the language of the Secretary-General’s report to the Security Council that formed the basis for the resolution authorising UNTAET. The UN would ‘need to be fully responsible for the administration of the territory’ in the transition period, and would itself be the administrative agent. The voice of the Timorese would only be heard through unspecified ‘mechanisms for dialogue at the national and local level’ (S/19991024). In colonial terms, it was a model of direct rather than indirect rule.

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Models and Planners

The planning process contributed to this result as well. The planning of UNTAET took place in the context of a fierce bureaucratic power struggle between DPA and DPKO. Before the crisis, DPA had been the principal unit in the Secretariat to handle East Timor. The department had been in charge of the negotiations leading to the referendum as well as the $52-million mission (UNAMET) that organized it. UNAMET’s mandate further gave it a role in the initial transition period regardless of the outcome of the ballot. DPA had developed considerable local expertise - it was virtually the custodian of the Secretariat’s knowledge about East Timor, both at headquarters and in the field where some 800 international UNAMET staff had been working closely with the Timorese for three months to organize the vote. Not surprisingly, DPA wished to participate in the post-ballot mission and started planning in early September. The head of UNAMET, Ian Martin, returned to East Timor after the violence to formally but briefly continue as mission head. However, the department ran headlong into strong opposition from DPKO.

The entry of international troops under the UN-authorized INTERFET radically changed the nature of the mission. DPKO maintained that with the deployment of international troops in a peacemaking or peacekeeping capacity, the mission should be moved to its departmental jurisdiction. In terms of numbers, moreover, the military component was clearly predominant. Initial plans for UNTAET included 8900 military, as against ca 1200 civilian staff.ix Inter-departmental rivalry over institutional mandate was reinforced by personality clashes, especially at the top level. The DPKO did not even respond to a proposal from DPA’s Under-Secretary-General for a joint planning mission. The fact that UNAMET had ended in disaster was used in the inter-department rivalry as well. Given the tense relations between the two departments, formalized joint planning or a joint mission seemed impossible. In mid-September a decision in the Secretary-General’s office settled the matter: while the planning team drew its staff from both departments and was assisted by a wider agency cast, DPKO was to be in charge.x

The institutional lead of DPKO in planning and implementing the mission had significant consequences. In general terms it meant that the entire civilian operation was staffed and organized by, and ultimately responsible to, a department that had little experience with ‘governance missions’, no country-knowledge of East Timor, and whose standard operating procedures were designed for military and preferably short-term operations.

Institutional location also influenced the choice of ‘model’ for planning purposes – another important element in the genesis of the mission. Since the UN essentially assumed a trusteeship role in East Timor as part of decolonization, it would seem logical to legally anchor the mission in the UN Charter’s provisions for trusteeship.xi Politically, this might be a liability in that the trusteeship model was associated with colonialism after World War I and South Africa’s illegal control over Namibia after World War II. On the other hand, basing the mission on a specific Charter provision for direct UN rule might pre-empt critics who questioned the legitimacy of the UN’s unprecedented authority in East Timor.xii Whichever the case, the trusteeship model was briefly considered and quickly discarded. Looking to something more institutionally familiar, DPKO chose its operations in Kosovo as the model. A comprehensive ‘peacebuilding’ and ‘governance’ mission had been established in Kosovo in June 1999. When the Security Council three months later asked the Secretariat to plan a similar operation for East Timor, Kosovo seemed the obvious reference point. The logistics of planning pointed in the same direction. The Secretariat had no central institutional memory, so to speak, where the experience of various missions could be stored and easily retrieved. Time was of the essence; the Secretariat had only a few weeks in which to launch the mission. With no spare planning capacity in the Secretariat at large or in DPKO,xiii the department mobilized individuals in the UN system who had been involved in the planning or early phase of the Kosovo mission (UNMIK).xiv The marching order of the East Timor planning team was, in short, to ‘take the Kosovo plan and rejig it to fit East Timor,’ as a participant later recalled.

The Kosovo mission itself reflected a broader doctrinal evolution that incorporated experiences from Namibia to Eastern Slavonia, and UNTAET was not a complete structural replica of UNMIK. The administration for East Timor had only three pillars (as against five in Kosovo) – governance&public administration (GPA), humanitarian&rehabilitation, and the (military) peacekeeping. There was no separate pillar for institution-building or reconstruction. While critically important to a ‘governance mission’ in a war-devastated country, both those functions were assumed to be part of GPA. In practice, they were largely taken over by the World Bank, the donors and, very belatedly, UNDP. The relatively more simplified structure reflected the lesser significance of East Timor to the major powers when compared to Kosovo. For the same reason, heads of the various pillars did not include representatives of other international organisations (as in Kosovo), but merely different geographic regions (in line with UN practice).

Regarding relations with the local parties, the impartiality principle was applied in both cases even though conditions on the ground differed. East Timor was decidedly on the road to independence, and the political forces favouring independence were grouped under one umbrella organisation, the CNRT. The main political division was between the proponents and opponents of independence, and the latter were a distinct minority, displaced to West Timor and discredited by the post-ballot violence. In Kosovo, by contrast, rival factions vied for power when UNMIK was established, and the eventual status of the province was uncertain. More fundamentally, the impartiality principle derived from a long-established institutional perspective in the UN that allowed for only two kinds of representative authorities: sovereign governments and factions. Insofar as the CNRT was not a sovereign entity, it was relegated to the conceptual category of ‘faction’ and treated accordingly (the pro-Indonesian integrationists being another faction). That the CNRT was a different creature, requiring a different approach, was not recognized.

The dominant institutional culture in DPKO, which held that peacekeeping missions must be neutral in relation to the local contending parties, worked in the same direction. No challenge arose on political grounds. While the Security Council had authorized an intrusive intervention, it had waited for Indonesian consent, and the Council was concerned to develop a transition acceptable to Jakarta. Treating the Timorese independence movement as merely a faction was consistent with this concern.

While prevailing in the end, the impartiality principle was questioned during the planning process and challenged by alternative approaches adopted by other agencies. Already when preparing for the referendum, DPA staff had considered ways of involving the Timorese in the transition period.xv In co-operation with World Bank staff – who was also looking towards the post-referendum phase – plans were made for a national consultative commission consisting of both the pro-independence forces and the pro-Indonesian factions. The commission would serve as a quasi-legislative body and a framework for participation in the transition period. While the post-referendum violence ended hopes for a truly bipartisan commission, DPA staff assisting in the planning process continued to favour significant Timorese participation.

While accepting UN tutelage in a transition period, leaders of the Timorese independence movement clearly expected to participate. When negotiations with Indonesia moved forward in early 1999, the CNRT had held a major conference of exiled leaders, Timorese diaspora, and supporters in Melbourne (in April) to map out a strategy for economic development. Soon after the referendum, and while East Timor was still in ashes after the violence, the CNRT called a meeting in Darwin, Australia to establish a consultative council to liase with the UN. The Transitional Council included the political and professional elite of the CNRT, each person having a functional or line responsibility that could form the basis for parallel staffing during the transition.xvi It was a concrete expression of the dual-structure state that the CNRT’s leadership hoped for.

The CNRT president Xanana Gusmão was given a hero’s welcome at the opening session of the UN General Assembly in September, but the CNRT was only marginally involved in the planning of UNTAET. The Timorese had no formal standing in the planning process, and met with staff sporadically and informally, mostly outside the UN premises. Moreover, the CNRT was structured around its top leaders and had weak representation in New York. No major decision could be made without Xanana’s approval, and the CNRT leader was not always within easy reach.

Nevertheless, early drafts and ideas prepared for the planning group included significant Timorese participation. Some proposals built on the notion developed earlier in DPA to separate legal and political authority. In this scheme, the Timorese would have political power while the UN would assume legal authority and serve in an advisory role. A fully dual-structured state was proposed, drawing on a similar CNRT proposal for Timorese participation throughout the administration – including the top political level.xvii The proposal had an integrated, dual desk system with Timorese working alongside UN international staff, and included a schedule for elections so as to emphasize the transitory nature of the mission.

Few of the draft provisions for Timorese participation survived the final reviews undertaken by high-level DPKO staff and the head of the planning mission. The impact of the early DPA planning was reduced by the radical transformation of the situation on the ground – from the assumption of a peaceful transfer to the reality of violence, division and destruction – and the transfer of planning jurisdiction from DPA to DPKO. As the inter-departmental turf war and bruising personality clashes among UN staff moved centre stage; the issue of Timorese participation receded into the distance. At the level of the head of the planning mission and senior staff in DPKO, there were other concerns as well. The plan had to be acceptable to the Security Council (i.e. subject to consensus politics), and to be quickly implementable (i.e. based on standard operating procedures).xviii

In the final document forwarded to the Security Council on 4 October, the dual political structure and the timetable for elections had disappeared. The mission plan included only unspecified ‘consultative mechanisms’ with the Timorese people. The principle of parallel staffing was tucked in towards the end of a long document. The pertinent paragraph affirmed in strong language that the Timorese would be brought into the administration even if they did not have the required expertise – apparently as on-the-job training - but the staffing tables and budgets subsequently prepared by the planning mission told another story.xix The main principles of standard peacekeeping were applied: as an assessed and international operation, UNTAET’s professional staff was reserved for internationally recruited personnel. Only support staff such as drivers, security guards and interpreters were recruited locally. In line with standard peacekeeping operations, there was no capacity or dedicated staff for on-the-job training. When the Security Council approved the final mission plan, the principle of Timorese participation was retained as a one-sentence clause in the resolution

While authorising a transitional administration, the understanding in the Security Council – especially in the US delegation – was that that training and institution building belonged bureaucratically to the world of development. ‘Nation-building’ activities must be organized and financed outside the framework for assessed contributions, which only covered the UN mission proper.xx A small voluntary UN Trust Fund was established to cover some local recurrent expenses, and could have been used to pay Timorese professionals. The fund was initially used to pay salaries for Timorese school teachers.xxi

In terms of budget procedures, UNTAET was treated as ordinary peacekeeping. The Security Council did not authorize the size of the UNTAET’s civilian ‘governance’ administration. The budget was negotiated with the relevant committees of the General Assembly and passed by that body. The civilian component of traditional peacekeeping missions had traditionally been quite small, and the Council did its own mission costing based on the sise of the military component only. The Council was in for a surprise: the civilian component of UNTAET turned out to be almost as costly as the military. The budget for the first 7 months (until 30 June 1999) totalled 386 million, of which almost equal amounts were allocated to military and civilian personnel (slightly under one-third each), and the rest for operational requirements. Similar proportions appeared in the budget for the following 12 months.xxii

In the months that followed, the proportion between civilian-military expenditures was of less concern to the Security Council than the overall budget. As a mission financed by assessed contributions, it had built-in demands for rapid completion. While UNTAET was less expensive than many other peacekeeping missions (e.g. about half the monthly rate of the UN mission in Mozambique in 1992-94), Security Council members were acutely aware that the taximeter was ticking at the rate of half a million dollars a day.xxiii

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A Foreign Mission

The fate of Falintil, the armed wing of the Timorese resistance movement, was similarly shaped by the consensus logic in the Security Council and reinforced by the neutrality culture of DPKO. There was some initial discussion in DPKO of making Falintil the core of the territory’s security forces, patterned after Kosovo where the Kosovo Liberation Army at that precise time was turned into a Kosovo Defence Force. Yet, a similar decision was not taken for East Timor until almost a year later, when relations with Indonesia had improved and after an independent study had legitimated this course of action.xxiv In the meantime, some one thousand Falintil guerrillas languished in enforced cantonment in the interior, creating additional tension between the transitional state and its Timorese subjects.

Timorese participation in UNTAET was tied up with the broader question of whether to recognize the CNRT. The predominant view in the Secretariat was that although the referendum had been conducted with the CNRT logo on the ‘no’ ballot, the result was a vote for independence, not for the CNRT. Early recognition would amount to political favouritism and could encourage corruption, it was argued. Negative precedents were cited, including recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the Palestinian Authority and early recognition of the South West African People’s Organization in Namibia. Institutionally, it seemed premature for the UN to recognize a national authority in advance of the elections, which the world body was intending to hold. As a result, early recognition was not supported by the DPA Under-Secretary-General, and certainly not the Office of electoral affairs in DPA, which was in charge of the future elections. DPKO’s institutional culture of neutrality clearly worked against early recognition, as did the UN institutional culture in which the CNRT appeared as ‘a faction’ insofar as it was not a government. Beyond this was the perception that political sentiments at the highest level of the UN, including both the Security Council and the Secretary-General, did not favour recognition.xxv

The mission was thus launched as a purely UN operation, with no recognized local counterpart. It had an internationally recruited civil administration, mostly staffed by persons with no expertise on the country or knowledge of locally understood languages. From the Transitional Administrator down to the district level, officials brought from all over the world via a UN personnel office in New York manned the state. In the field, the intense competition for interpreters signalled the fundamentally foreign nature of the governance mission.

The Security Council Resolution had given the Transitional Administrator authority to move towards a dual structure in practice, and to develop mechanisms for political consultation with the Timorese. This he did only slowly, and only as the demand for Timorization mounted in March-April 2000. The complex dynamic of the reluctant Timorsation process cannot be analysed in depth here. Suffice to note that the planning process in New York had set the template, but it did not dictate the choice in Dili.

The Transitional Administrator seemed to follow a strategy tailored to broader international issues and Headquarter perspectives. Citing the need to avoid local ‘politicisation’ of the administration, he noted divisions within Timorese society, the need to keep open the door for refugees to come back from West Timor, and Security Council concerns. The presumed neutrality of UN stewardship was preferred.xxvi Senior staff in UNTAET that could have moved Timorization forward were either steeped in the tradition of a non-political civil administration, or initially preoccupied with foreign affairs.

Within UNTAET staff, opposition to Timorization before elections and the establishment of a Timorese civil service was variously explained. Some referred to the uncertain status of the CNRT. As the umbrella organisation of the independence forces, the CNRT would be the likely conduit for local recruitment to UNTAET. Timorese politics would thus creep in through the back door by giving some the CNRT favourites preferential access to the state relative to factional divisions based on generational, language or personal differences. The argument was premised on a Weberian notion of a non-political civil administration; the irony, of course, was that the UN state instead came to be shaped by UN politics and the numerous institutional and personal interests that affected the international recruitment process and the functioning of UNTAET. In large part, the bureaucratic politics of UNTAET – and the larger UN institutional culture it reflected – in itself served to exclude Timorese and persons with local expertise. The career system in the UN Secretariat did not reward managerial or training responsibility for local employees, while responsibility for professional UN staff did. Inclusion of persons with significant local knowledge would threaten those whose principal expertise was management in the UN system.xxvii

Timorization proved possible only over time as Timorese demands for participation mounted and found growing support in the UN system, above all among donors who recognized that the essence of a governance mission was capacity building. At the same time, East Timor became less controversial in the Security Council. The main concern in the Security Council was to avoid another crisis in East Timor. When that did not happen, even significant international issues, such as negotiations with Australia over oil revenues from the Timor Gap, elicited little interest among the permanent members.xxviii In the regularized discussions in the Security Council on East Timor, some members started calling for greater Timorese participation.

As the political universe to which UNTAET oriented itself changed, and the daily Timorese reality pressed closer, the need to accommodate insistent demands for greater Timorese participation became inescapable. A modest consultative mechanism had been established in December 1999, which slightly enlarged the e existing, informal consultations between Xanana Gusmão and Sergio de Mello. Participation was expanded in the second half of 2000 after an intense political struggle that pitted most of the Timorese political and civil society, with key allies from the aid community and a few UNTAET staff, against the heavy weight of a UN-staffed state that resisted becoming superfluous. By early autumn, the political consultative commission had 31 members, and some of the administrative functions were put under Timorese political leadership (ETTA). Yet international staff continued to dominate both in the central administration and at the district level. By March 20001 only a couple of the 13 District Administrators were Timorese.

The pace was much too slow for Timorese who increasingly complained about the visible, expensive and foreign UN state. The supreme irony was that while the CNRT had been a widely accepted umbrella organisation among Timorese when UNTAET was established, and in that sense a manageable partner, by the time Timorization took place in the second half of 2000, the CNRT split wide open and was subsequently abolished. Political fragmentation increased as the elections scheduled for August 2001 approached, making it more difficult for UNTAET to manage the Timorization process.xxix In some measure, it was an irony that the UN had brought upon itself by failing to deal more constructively with the political movement at an earlier stage.

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Planning Assumptions: No Time and An Empty Place

Two fundamental assumptions guided the planning process. One was that violence and flight had produced near-total destruction in what at the outset had been an extremely underdeveloped society. The idea that East Timor had nothing – indeed was a terra nullis of sorts, a place that had to be created – soon became conventional wisdom in New York and part of the Western The other assumption was that the UN had very little time to act.

The extensive destruction that followed the referendum created immediate demands for relief and reconstruction.xxxi The UN had been vested with the authority to provide all essential services and rebuild the infrastructure, but had no plans and no ready capacity to undertake a task of this kind. Yet there was tremendous political pressure to demonstrate that the UN could act quickly and effectively. Not only were there urgent humanitarian needs on the ground. The debate in the Security Council in mid-September indicated that the East Timor mission carried the larger burden of delivering a success so as to compensate for previous UN failures in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda. In East Timor, all the ingredients for manageable operations seemed present. If the UN could not succeed here, the feeling was, it would hardly succeed anywhere.

Exactly what success required was unclear, except that it placed a premium on speed and concrete results. Ideally, the UN needed 6 months to prepare a multi-purpose mission like UNTAET, a senior DPKO official later said.xxxii In fact, planning for UNTAET was completed in about one month. Meaningful contingency planning had not started before September, ostensibly because it would appear to prejudge the outcome of the referendum.

Time constraint and a terra nullis assumption reinforced the UN inclination to approach the crisis relying on standardized, external packages. If there was ‘nearly nothing’ in East Timor for the UN to build on, as Sergio de Mello later said, then nearly everything had to be brought in.xxxiii DPKO had initially asked for ‘national service packages’ equivalent to those earlier used by UNHCR in massive humanitarian emergencies, hoping that one nation would rebuild the electricity sector, another would take responsibility for education, etc. In the event, the option was abandoned, and UNTAET had to assemble the administration from smaller, foreign contributions.

Outside the Secretariat, opinions differed as to whether East Timor in fact lacked all necessary resources to rebuild the administration. While the UN planning document for the mission claimed that all Indonesian and other administrative staff had left,xxxiv the Joint Assessment Mission led by the World Bank, composed of staff members from the Bank, UN agencies, and Timorese and foreign experts was less categorical. Some 20-25% of the civil servants had left, mainly those estimated to be of Indonesian origin. Admittedly, these were concentrated in the higher grades and skilled technical positions, ‘so this creates a serious skill deficit for the civil service.’xxxv

Many of the remaining Timorese civil servants were primary school teachers and nurses. The schoolteachers soon started to return to work and were eventually paid by UNTAET through the UN Trust Fund. In the health sector, Timorese district officials were also located and returned to work, perhaps because the Interim Health Authority was the only agency that from the outset had created a dual leadership by appointing a Timorese doctor. The Land and Property Office of UNTAET soon found Timorese legal and other experts, but UN regulations initially permitted using them only on a volunteer basis (which the Timorese naturally resented). There were skilled Timorese among the diaspora, among the hundreds of Timorese students in Indonesia and elsewhere, and among the remaining civil servants. The CNRT, as noted, had mobilized persons of skills and authority to its Transitional Council. The CNRT (as well as the Church) had local authority structures on the district level that could have been better utilized. By early 2000 there were so many East Timorese with a law degree (although of uneven quality) that they formed an Association of Lawyers. When Oxfam staff restored water supply in the districts, they relied mostly on local engineers and technicians who had worked under the former Water Board of East Timor. In fact, the Water Board operated the system for a while before turning it over to UNTAET.xxxvi

In technical and administrative skills overall, the Timorese obviously could not match the international staff that arrived. However, they possessed some – which were not utilized - and they had a range of skills appropriate and necessary to the local situation that the international staff lacked - starting with languages. What was missing, and which made East Timor appear a terra nullis to many, was management experience in relation to the UN system. Arguably, this was a necessary skill in the transitional period, but not an exclusive one.

The final explanation for why even the limited skills and resources of the Timorese were not mobilized by UNTAET was that neither the mission nor the planning team stopped to make an inventory. UNDP and the World Bank, by contrast, adopted different strategies.

The UNDP’s approach to the East Timor mission was based on the alternative assumption that there were East Timorese with professional and administrative skills who must be mobilized from the outset. The view was articulated in a concept paper drafted in September 1999 that explicitly rebutted the terra nullis assumption in favour of a development-oriented perspective. East Timor was not an ‘empty state’ in terms of technical, administrative or political skills.xxxvii ‘In planning its interim role’, the paper argued, ‘the UN Administration must, right from the onset, maximize the use of East Timorese human resources’ to be found in the existing administration, the sizeable diaspora, returning students and other residents (Indonesian ‘migrants’). The paper warned that ‘applying any ‘state of the art’ type system and facilities’ would not be sustainable. Instead, sustainability and an independent governance process required ‘most crucially the incorporation of East Timor citizens into positions of importance, and not just as ‘apprentices’ or ‘shadow partners’.’

UNDP’s alternative position never got a hearing. The report was prepared by UNDP’s New York office in September and lacked concrete suggestions for how to proceed. UNDP had taken itself out of the early planning process by letting its Indonesia office cover East Timor until the time of the referendum. While protecting it’s the agency’s large Indonesian portfolio, the decision effectively precluded UNDP from actively canvassing Timorese resources. In the inter-agency discussions in New York in September, moreover, different offices of UNDP appeared to pursue conflicting priorities. In both New York and Dili, a main UNDP agenda was perceived as competing with the World Bank. The result was to reduce the saliency of the agency and the development perspective.

World Bank staff had made early efforts to identify skilled Timorese who could be engaged in the post-referendum phase. Unlike in UNDP, the East Timor portfolio was moved from the Bank’s Indonesia office to the Pacific Island Division before the referendum, thus permitting more aggressive planning. Bank staff had already in June-July canvassed the Timorese diaspora as well as professionals within the territory. Some Timorese professionals were brought to the Bank’s headquarter in Washington for training program. While plans for a larger training program were cut short by the post-referendum violence, the preparatory work done by Bank staff enabled them to quickly include a number of Timorese professionals on the large Bank-led mission that assessed the rehabilitation and development needs after the violence.xxxviii The inclusion of Timorese in the Joint Assessment Mission was in itself a rebuttal of the terra nullis argument.

Early preparation gave the Bank a lead in planning for the transitional phase, but the Bank worked on a separate policy track that did not influence the constitutive rules of UNTAET. The subsequent rivalry over community development in early 2000 reflected not only intense institutional rivalry over political power and control over substantial development funds, but different approaches to the Timorese role during the transition. The Bank promoted local-level Timorese participation in development decisions through its Community Empower Program; UNTAET opposed the scheme, arguing that local participation must await formal, UN-held elections.

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UNTAET’s position on the community empowerment scheme is indicative of a broader alienation from the Timorese society. By mid-200, the euphoria of the heady post-referendum days had given way to disillusionment. A sense had developed among the population that ‘UNTAET is on a separate path from the East Timorese,’ the Transitional Administrator noted.xxxix

The path in fact consisted of two tracks. The planning and launching of the mission made sense in terms of its peacekeeping and immediate relief functions. These operations typically unfold in a situation where there is little time, the stakes are high, and technical skills are at a premium because the goals are specific and instrumentalities of reaching them are relatively clear. External interventions based on standardized packages of skills, tools and procedures are appropriate across a range of cases. This logic was embodied in the standard operating procedures of peacekeeping, reinforced in this case by politics in the Security Council and key staffing decisions.xl The main financing mechanism was assessed contributions that gave assured funding, but imposed expectations of rapid results, and excluded local capacity-training. Administrative staff was recruited centrally, with no requirements of country expertise. The guiding principles were impartiality rather than local participation. Into this structure, the governance functions of the mission were fitted. It was a poor fit.

The problem was not so much that the situation was entirely new (the UN had since the Namibia operation gradually taken on governance functions), or that the requirements of a ‘peacebuilding’ missions were unrecognized. Rather, knowledge was not matched by changes in institutional structures and cultures at both the central UN level and in the mission. Awareness of correct technical solutions was often neutralized by fierce bureaucratic politics.

Gradually, the governance functions were accommodated by more suitable structures that allowed for longer time frame, local participation and institution- building. Additional funding mechanisms were used (both bilaterally by donors and a UN Trust Fund). More fiscal and recruitment power devolved from headquarters to the mission field. Timorese participation increased through a local quasi-legislative institution established (the National Council) and political leadership for some administrative functions were turned over to Timorese (ETTA). This was well in advance of August 20001 elections, but almost a year after UNTAET was launched. Timorese civil service appointments gradually increased. Yet the process proceeded in fits and starts, was typically accompanied by bruising political battles, and required ad hoc innovation.

While the genesis of an organisation does not determine later choices, as Howard Adelman has noted more generally, it ‘identifies the boundaries within which those choices are made.’xli The mission template laid down in New York is therefore critically important. What are the lessons from the planning of UNTAET in this respect?

For mixed peacekeeping and governance missions, some improvement on the UNTAET model probably can be made through institutional changes in the UN Secretariat as suggested by the Brahimi report (e.g. in planning, recruitment and financing). Other parameters (especially the demand for quick and concrete results, and for top-down, external control) are more resistant. The political imperatives in the Security Council are unpredictable and intrusive on the launching phase of most missions. Given the typical characteristics of ‘nation-building’ or ‘governance missions – long-term, messy, bottom-up and democratic – the most logical solution appears to be a split the mission with one structure for relief and peacekeeping, and another for governance. How the two would relate to each other is an open question. Current efforts at the UN focus on the opposite concept of integrated missions that can undertake both peacekeeping and peacebuilding. The East Timor case points in the opposite direction, suggesting the need for developing strategies that can de-aggregate missions and thereby create a better fit between structure and mandate.

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This article draws on interviews in New York, Washington and in East Timor in the period March 2000–March 2001. It is part of a larger project on the role of the UN in transitional administrations financed by the Norwegian Research Council. The author wishes to thank an anonymous reviewer for detailed comments on an earlier draft.


i UN doc.SC/6799/3, Feb. 2000.

ii 'Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations', UN doc. A/55/305,S2000/809.

iii 'East Timor: UNTAET, justice and refugees one year after the ballot,'

iv Michèle Griffin and Bruce Jones, 'Building Peace Through Transitional Authority Mandates: New Directions, Major Challenges', in Adedekeye Abajao and Chandra Lekha Sriram (eds), Managing Armed Conflict in the 21st Century, London: Frank Cass, 2001, pp.75-90.

v UN doc. A/54/654, 13 Dec. 1999, para.44.

viAmong non-Timorese observers, Shepard Forman argued for a dominant Timorese role during the transition, noting that the failure to include Timorese in the administration had created 'a terrible sense of exclusion'. 'Comments', International Peace Academy, New York, 9 May 2000 p.3. At a seminar, 'Kosovo and East Timor. Applying Lessons Learned' (30 September 30-1 October 2000) a prominent member of the Brahimi panel asked why the UN had not turned the administration over to the Timorese at the outset, leaving itself only an advisory role.

vii See UN docs S/1999/513 (5 May), S/199/595 (22 May), S/1999/803 (20 July).

viii For instance, the statement of the Security Council president on 3 September to this effect (SC/6723) was left standing.

ix Not including nearly 500 UN volunteers. The civilian ceiling was set later in the year during negotiations with budget committees of the General Assembly (UN docs A/54/769,1999, A/55/543,2000).

x A note by Iqbal Riza, chef de cabinet of the Secretary-General settled the thorny jurisdiction issue. The planning team was headed by a person seconded to DPKO (Eric Morris), working in consultation with the head of DPKO. A small number of staff from DPA and other UN offices and agencies participated as well.

xi The UN Charter specifies that 'one or more states or the Organization itself' may administer a territory placed under the trusteeship system (Art. 81, italics added). East Timor might fit under Art.77 (c): territories that are voluntarily placed under the system by states responsible for their administration.

xii The point has been articulated by a former international UNTAET official, Jarat Chopra, 'The UN Kingdom of East Timor,' Survival, Vol.42, No.3, 2000, pp.27-39.

xiii Several industrial states had seconded (gratis) military planning officials to DPKO in the early 1990s, when UN's peacekeeping operations suddenly increased. This was criticized by G-77 members for giving northern states undue influence over peacekeeping. As a result, the arrangement was terminated in February 1998, and DPKO's planning section lost 134 staff members.

xiv The head of the planning group, Eric Morris, had been in the advance UN mission to Kosovo and the planning mission for UNMIK. The head of the advance Kosovo mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was concurrently head of OCHA, was not directly involved in the planning, but was appointed Transitional Administrator. He seconded an OCHA staff to the East Timor planning team, Bruce Jones, who had been in the advance mission to Kosovo as well.

xv The idea made its way into the 9 August report of the Secretary-General on UNAMET's extension (S/1999/862), and the 28 August resolution of the Security Council that authorized the extension (1262/1999).

xvi The Transitional Council was headed by Gusmão (President), with Ramos-Horta as Vice-President (equivalent to their positions on the CNRT), followed by 14 persons identified with line-responsibility equivalent to that in a shadow-Cabinet, starting with the Falintil leader Taur Matan Ruak responsible for Internal Administration, Security and Defence. The Transition Council survived until early 2000, by which time most persons had filtered into other positions in the CNRT, joined the modest consultative mechanism established by UNTAET in December (NCC), or returned to the diaspora. The Council composition was included in an early information package distributed by UNTAET, PKF/HQ/Military Information Cell, 'East Timor: Key Figures and Organizations' (n.d.).

xvii The CNRT produced a similar version in mid-June 2000 when the Transitional Administrator opened for greater Timorization. Their organogram placed Timorese strategically and prominently placed throughout UNTAET, starting at the top where the CNRT president appeared at the same level as the Transitional Administrator, effectively exercising a veto. The Transitional Administrator rejected equality at the top and the dual structure throughout, proposing instead to share some Cabinet functions with what became a Timorese transitional administration (ETTA).

xviii The key person in DPKO, Assistant Secretary-General Hedi Annabi, had a long tenure in the department. Part of his current duties was to brief the Security Council on the East Timor mission. The head of the planning mission, Eric Morris, had for many years been head of emergency operations in UNHCR and was attuned to the logic of mounting quick and effective relief interventions.

xix 'The United Nations will work on the basis of the principles of participation and capacity-building. This will involved assigning East Timorese to positions within the transitional administrative structures to be established….Where [qualified individuals] are not available, UNTAET will nevertheless assign East Timorese to serve in positions inside the administrative structures together with international counterparts, and deliver sufficient training and capacity-building to enable these persons gradually to replace international staff.'UN doc. S/1999/1024, 4 Oct. 1999, para. 47.

xx The contradiction between the sweeping mandate and the narrowing financing structure of the transitional administration was unwittingly articulated by the US representative at the Security Council when the Council authorized the establishment of UNTAET. Noting that peacekeeping assessments were to support United Nations staff, peacekeeping forces and civilian police, he pointed out that 'civil society projects' should be financed through voluntary contributions by interested states. UN doc. SC/6745, 25 October 1999.

xxi The UN Trust Fund was separate from the Trust Fund for East Timor (TFET) managed by the World Bank, which was the main funding source for reconstruction and development.

xxii This did not include humanitarian relief operations, which were financed under a separate inter-agency consolidated appeal process. UN doc. A/54/769,1999. In the budget for 2000-2001, 35% of the total 592 million was allocated to civilian personnel and 39% to the military. Operational requirements had sunk to 22% UN doc. A/55/43,2000).

xxiii Already in May 200, the US ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, spoke strongly in favour of rapidly downsizing the military component of UNTAET. UN doc. SC/6882, 27 June 2000.

xxiv Independent Study on Security Force Options for East Timor. The Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London, 8 Aug. 2000.

xxv Interview with member of the planning mission, New York, March 2000.

xxvi Interview with author, Dili, October 2000. See also de Mello's statement to the Security Council on 3 February 2000 where he argues it was 'too early to politicize the environment' by permitting new political parties, prepare for constitution, etc. UN doc. SC/6799.

xxvii For instance, the planned appointment of a leading Australian expert on East Timor as special advisor to the Transitional Administrator, de Mello, was blocked by a high-level staff in UNTAET who had worked with de Mello in Kosovo but had no Timor experience.

xxviii A high-level international UNTAET staff described the reaction when he briefed the US ambassador in the Security Council on the Timor Gap negotiations: 'His eyes glazed over.' Interview, Dili, October 2000.

xxix By spring 2001, some 15 political parties and groupings had appeared to contest the elections. East Timor's political parties and groupings, ACOFA Development Issues, March 2001.

xxx Returning from a first official mission in October 1999, the head of the World Bank division covering East Timor declared that '[n]othing exists anymore… This country really needs to be invented from scratch.' IPS, 18 November 1999. The same point was argued in an article with the title 'Inventing East Timor' in the influential US policy journal Foreign Affairs, by James Traub, Vol.79, No.4, 2000, pp.74-89.

xxxi The Secretary-General's report of 4 October described the situation as 'critical': 'The civil administration is no longer functioning. The judiciary and court systems have ceased to exist. Essential services, such as water and electricity, are in real danger of collapse. There are no medical services, and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons are in dire need of emergency relief.' UN doc. S/1999/1024, para. 22.

xxxii Interview with author, New York, July 2000.

xxxiii Statement to the Security Council, UN doc. SC/6799/ 3 Feb.2000.

xxxiv '[A]s there are no …. administrative officials in Dili or in the rest of the territory…[UN-recruited international] civil affairs officers and experts in local administration will be deployed…', UN doc. S/1999/1024, para 14,23(c ).

xxxv Report of the Joint Assessment Mission to East Timor. World Bank, 8 Dec. 1999, para 15. The Mission continues to note that this presents an opportunity for reform since the Indonesian-dominated civil service was bloated and inefficient.

xxxvi Report by the Secretary-General to the Security Council, UN doc. S/2000/53/para 31, 26 Jan. 2000.

xxxvii UNDP, Conceptual framework for reconstruction, recovery and development of East Timor. New York, draft, Sept. 1999, p.5.

xxxviii The subsequent head of the Bank's office in Dili, Sarah Cliffe, was centrally involved in these preparations. She has described the JAM-process in 'The Joint Assessment Mission and reconstruction in East Timor', in James J. Fox and Dionisio Babo Soares (eds), Out of the Ashes. Destruction and Reconstruction in East Timor, Adeleide:Crawford House, 2000, pp. 252-61.

xxxix He claimed this perception was 'mistakenly held'. Speech by Sergio de Mello 2 June 2000, at the Tibar conference (outside Dili) that initiated the first round of Timorization.

xl  The head of the planning mission and the Transitional Administrator both had a long tenure in UNHCR, where emergency relief operations dominated the institutional culture in the 1990s.

xli 'From Refugees to Forced Migration. UNHCR and Human Security', International Migration Review, Vol.35, Spring 2001, 7-32.

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