Keeping the Peace: East Timor

When the United Nations is responsible for birthing a new country, as it was in East Timor over the past eight years, one can be forgiven for being a touch confused by the alphabet soup of UN missions involved.

Please bear with me: Following an East Timor referendum on independence from Indonesia in 1999, UNAMET was replaced by UNTAET, which in turn became subsumed into UNMISET and later transitioned into UNOTIL, that is, until 2006 when UNMIT — the United Nations Mission in East Timor — took over. For those less versed in UN-ease, let me explain.East Timor, or Timor Leste as it is formally known in the UN system, is a tiny country situated on the eastern shores of the Indonesian archipelago. It stands today as an example of a country that was nurtured into existence and then protected at birth by the United Nations. Observers have hailed East Timor as a nation-building success story, but it is clear that East Timor is still a work in progress.

The conflict in East Timor draws its roots from Portugal’s abrupt decision in 1974 to abandon East Timor, a territory it had colonized for centuries. Just days following the Portuguese withdrawal, the Indonesian government moved forces into East Timor, claiming that a communist movement threatened to spill over into Indonesia itself. So began a quarter-century of terrible suffering for the people of East Timor. An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people are believed to have been killed in the 25 years of Indonesian occupation.

In 1999, under international pressure, Indonesian president BJ Habbibie acceded to a referendum that would let East Timor decide on independence from Indonesia. The Security Council then created UNAMET, the first of five UN missions in East Timor, to administer the elections.

On August 30, East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence. But following the elections, the Indonesian military and pro-Indonesian militias instigated riots and violence soon spread out of control. The Security Council quickly approved an Australian-led international force that was able to stem the violence. By October 1999 a new international police force, UNATET, was authorized to keep the peace as East Timor prepared for national elections.

In 2002, East Timor voted for a president and parliament. The country, however, remained fragile, and the new government asked the United Nations to approve a new peacekeeping mission, UNMISET, to help provide security as the fledgling democracy built itself from scratch. By August there were nearly 5,000 UN peacekeepers in East Timor. The United Nations, meanwhile, welcomed a new member to the family. On September 27, the General Assembly voted unanimously to make East Timor the UN’s 191st member state.

In May 2005, UNMSET closed its doors and the peacekeeping mission was replaced with UNOTIL, a political mission to support the development of the nation’s infrastructure and state institutions. Still, all was not well in Dilli, East Timor’s capital. In April 2006, a rally in support of East Timorese soldiers who were fired for desertion turned into a violent riot. Many were killed and an estimated 100,000, one tenth of the population, fled their homes. The crisis threatened to undermine seven years of UN and Timorese efforts to rebuild their country. Once again, Australia led an international intervention to restore order in the country. The Security Council, meanwhile, approved yet another mission, one that exists to this day.

Today, there over 1,600 uniformed personnel, mostly police, deployed in the United Nations Mission in East Timor, UNMIT. They support state institution and capacity building and helped oversee recent presidential elections, which concluded on Sunday when East Timor’s newest president, the Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos Horta, assumed office. UNMIT is scheduled to conclude in February 2008. But prior to that, the Security Council may decide to reauthorize UNMIT for another year to make sure that East Timor is on stable footing.