Building Democracy in East Timor

Following East Timor’s independence from Indonesia in 1999, the Security Council authorized a peacekeeping operation in East Timor to stabilize the new country and rehabilitate its fractured government bureaucracies. Kofi Annan sent one of his most able diplomats, the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, to oversee East Timor reconstruction. The UN then began an ambitious set of capacity building efforts, including training Timorese to fill basic bureaucratic structures and training a judiciary. (This latter job was no easy task. As James Traub recounts in The Best Intentions, there was not a single lawyer in the county at the time.)

The United Nations also oversaw elections in East Timor. It now seems that the young country will reach another milestone as voters stood in long lines this week to cast ballots in a new presidential election. The results are still being tallied, and will not likely be known until Wednesday.

Crucially, the elections occurred without incident. This is an encouraging sign because ten months ago a brief spate of violence threatened to metastasize and reverse hard fought reconstruction gains. At the time, a speedy deployment of Australian military forces calmed the situation before it spiraled out of control. Today, it seems that the security situation is improved to the point that Australia has signaled that it may pull its remaining 1,000 troops from East Timor following a set of parliamentary elections later this year.