Time for the UN to Withdraw From East Timor?


It has been a tough couple of years for the United Nations Police and Security Sector Reform (SSR) projects in East Timor and it is not getting better. A new Crisis Group report examines the record and future of the United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor (UNMIT) as the UN Security Council prepares to reconsider the mission's mandate in February 2011. As the third largest UN policing mission in the world, it costs more than USD $200 million a year. It is now the longest serving mission in East Timor after being first deployed following the 2006 crisis. This crisis was precipitated and exacerbated by a politicized and dysfunctional security sector, resulting in street fighting between various elements of the military, police and armed civilian groups. Dozens of people were killed and 10% of the country's population displaced.

Much of UNMIT's raison d'etre mandated by the UN Security Council has been to reform, restructure, and rebuild the national police service -- the Policia Nacional de East Timor (PNTL) -- and to assist the government in conducting a broad participatory policy review of the security sector.

The Crisis Group report says that the UN mission in East Timor has failed in these tasks, and virtually all other observers concur with this position. It has neither reformed the Timorese national police service nor produced the required review on how the country's security sector might be overhauled. The national police remains institutionally weak, under resourced, and largely unaccountable to broad civilian authority. Furthermore, there are concerns on behalf of the international community that a blurring of responsibilities between the police and military could pose problems in the future. Crisis Group argues that the Timorese have elected to chart their own course and that the large UN mission only serves to confuse rather than helps matters. It asserts that the mission's police component should be drawn down dramatically faster than currently intended, its Security Sector Reform unit closed, and that the UN should draw up plans to phase out the mission altogether.

The UN mission has poorly handled its mandate to assist in broader security sector reform and its efforts have been consistently rebuffed by the government. The review of the security sector intended to guide policy development remains unpublished four years later and at this stage its release would be irrelevant. The UN's stated goal of delineating the roles of the police and the army has been rejected by Timorese leaders in favour of bringing the two forces closer together to avoid rivalry. The security sector support unit of the mission should be closed.

While it is easy and at times popular to pour blame on the UN, the Timorese Government has made the decision to go it alone. Enabled by growing political confidence and a massive petro-dollar fueled 450% increase in the national budget over the past three years, the Timorese Government has elected to largely ignore the UN on matters relating to the reform of the security sector. Rather it has merged the police and military under a combined Ministry of Defence and Security, so as to minimize rivalry and build confidence. This sees a greater role for the military in internal affairs and traditionally civilian roles, as well as an ongoing role for paramilitary police units deemed necessary and appropriate by local authorities. Additionally, the government has elected to ignore the UN Independent Special Commission of Inquiry's proposals on accountability for the 2006 violence choosing to dismiss calls for prosecutions, or via presidential constitutional prerogative, pardon those who were convicted.

Leaving should not be too much of a problem for the UN. Any objective review of the situation in East Timor reveals that the Timorese security institutions have been managing security in East Timor for the past three years, and not without some success. Where there have been problems, the presence of a large UN mission has only served to confuse matters, obscuring the fact that in reality Timorese authorities are in charge on the ground, if not yet according to the letter UN-Government agreements. Its time for the international community to let Timorese openly assume total responsibility for their future.

For years, one report after another has suggested that things are amiss in the UN's police reform, and security sector reform initiatives, and the parallel universe of the UN's Obrigado Barracks HQ in Dili. In a quick count, there are at least eighteen reports brimming with criticism since January 2008. The International Crisis Group first raised a red flag on SSR in January 2008 and later with a comprehensive public study of the Timorese national police in December 2009. A former UNMIT staffer filed a September 2008 thesis for York University full of his old employer's failings. In December 2008, the UN itself produced a confidential report, first leaked by Wikileaks, which spoke of "tremendous institutional gaps" in the police service.

The chorus only strengthened the following year. In February 2009, a guest blogger for the Lowy Institute called the SSR effort "lame." In May, the influential Centre for International Cooperation in New York wrote, "The United Nations - despite its mandated role in SSR - has become increasingly sidelined." In June, International Peacekeeping published an article concluding that "the UN mission was not accomplished, and much work remained to be done to build a fully competent national police institution." In August, the Timorese Secretary of State for Defence made a less than kind public assessment of UN SSR efforts in East Timor. In September, another UNMIT staffer wrote in his MA thesis that the "UN mission has been constrained by a lack of prioritization of SSR, a poor understanding of SSR theory within the UN family and mission leadership as well as the legacy of the UN's past mistakes." In October, the New York-based Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum (CPPF) described the fiction that is UN Police handover to local police. On 29 October a highly respected national NGO wrote a pummeling paper asserting poor UN performance and double standards in the justice and security sector.

The criticism grew louder this year. In January, the Geneva based Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) published a chapter by one respected observer suggesting "it was a lot of talk and no action". In February Janes Defence Weekly wrote a biting commentary, concluding "that handover ceremonies constitute achievements in UN reports to the Security Council, but again the extent of institutional reform achieved remains questionable." In the same month, an influential police reform expert with experience in East Timor, and close ties to the UN Police Division in New York, provided a forensic look into the reasons for police reform failure globally, and East Timor in particular. In May Canada's Security Sector Reform Monitor cast a long shadow over UN SSR efforts with a strong argument asserting that the UN and its SSR efforts have been marginalized. On 18 November, a local NGO was more than a little annoyed with UNMIT SSR gaffes about armed private security. In December a local newspaper suggested that UNPOL was not serious about dealing with prostitution. This same newspaper also a few days earlier reported that the UNMIT Security Sector Sector considered an under performer by a UN watchdog. As well as the ICG report this month, CPPF again weighed in calling UNMIT's SSR work a "disaster."

The UN is intent on wrapping up in East Timor by 2012, and the government wants it out then as well. But the failures in East Timor have broader lessons. The United Nations also has a range of much larger police reform/SSR projects underway in Haiti, Liberia, and South Sudan. These are bigger and much tougher places in comparison to Dili. They have problems that are exponentially larger in scale and degree than that which exists in East Timor. The lesson is that when it comes to something as profoundly difficult as security sector reform, the UN Security Council must keep in mind the limitations of UN peace operations and either scale up their commitment or just get out of the security reform game in post-conflict zones. Half-measure security and police reform is just not worthwhile.

Giving up on UN security reform missions altogether is neither likely nor entirely desirable if you believe the benefits of multilateralism. However, the UN needs to reassess its performance and close the policy versus practice gap in reviewing its operations. Much work has been done in developing a serious police and security-sector reform doctrine in UN HQ, but that doctrine is not fully implemented on the ground. The United Nations is currently conducting a system-wide review of civilian capacity, expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2011. It will be instructive to see to what extent UN missions from across the world the lessons of far away East Timor.

Image: A United Nations soldier on guard in Dili. By Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty.