East Timor asks for UN-led peacekeeping force

Issue 

Jon Lamb

East Timor's foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta formally requested to a special session of the United Nations Security Council on June 14 that the UN Office In East Timor be extended by at least one month to August 22. The Security Council is expected to discuss within the next few weeks extending this further as well as revising the UN's mandate and function in East Timor.

UN general-secretary Kofi Annan said a new and upgraded UN presence was needed in East Timor to help restore order in the wake of the political and social crisis of the last month. Annan told the Security Council that the scaling down of the UN in East Timor had happened too quickly and that "The sad events of recent weeks reflect shortcomings not only on the part of the Timorese leadership but also on the part of the international community in inadequately sustaining Timor-Leste's nation-building process".

The Timorese government asked the council "to establish immediately a United Nations police force in Timor-Leste, to maintain law and order in Dili and other parts of the country as necessary and re-establish confidence among the people, until the PNTL [East Timor National Police] has undergone reorganisation and restructuring so that it can act as an independent and professional law enforcement agency". It added that this force should remain for at least a year, including during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007.

The East Timorese representative added that while East Timor was deeply indebted to the countries that quickly deployed forces at the government's request, as the emergency situation was nearing an end it was important that attention now be turned to replacing the current force with a peacekeeping force under the UN umbrella, to reduce political and diplomatic tensions.

The representatives of Portugal and Malaysia supported the Timorese request for a UN-led force, while Australia's ambassador to the UN, Robert Hill, proposed that the PNTL be led by an Australian, suggesting former Northern Territory and Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer. He urged that the UN focus on longer term development issues and investigations into recent events, rather than a peacekeeping and security role.

Annan said that it was unlikely that an upgraded UN-led peacekeeping force would be able to take over from the current Australian-led security force for at least six months.

UN special envoy Ian Martin stressed at the council meeting that "there is a pressing need for an impartial investigation of recent events involving loss of life — in particular, the disputed number of killings which occurred in Dili on 28-29 April, and the killing by soldiers of unarmed police officers under United Nations escort [and injury to two UN police officers] on 25 May". He outlined this as the first priority, adding that the UN should play "a major role" in the organisation of the May 2007 elections and that "the review and restoration of the security sector is a crucial task".

In a June 14 speech to parliament, President Xanana Gusmao told the assembly that the state had become "paralysed" and that "the population is suffering from the consequences". He added that the failure of the East Timorese state to deal with the crisis had "frighten[ed] all of us who were elected by the people to ensure stability, security and better living conditions" and that it was now "the time to rebuild, rather than to point out blame". He also stressed that he would be seeking to "continue to fulfil the sacred duty of safeguarding the democratic state" as a "guardian of the constitution".

The announcement by Gusmao signals an easing of political tensions within the political elite and moves away from a push to use constitutional triggers or other means to dissolve the parliament or replace Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Alkatiri and the Fretilin-led government appear to have, for now, weathered allegations in the Australian media that Alkatiri and former interior minister Rogerio Lobato were behind the creation of a special gang to intimidate and eliminate Alkatiri's opponents.

While overall gang activity in Dili has declined considerably, isolated incidents continue to occur, including some that appear to have a political element, such as threats to and attacks on journalists. Two staff members of the Timor Post were attacked on June 15 and the paper's editor believes this was due to the paper printing articles critical of the prime minister.

East Timorese and UN-sponsored investigations into the recent violence will be a key test of the credibility and moral authority of the East Timorese political elite following the crisis. International prosectors have arrived in Dili and have started collecting evidence.

The results of these investigations and the resolution of the grievances held by the different rebel factions, within both the army and police, will have a strong influence on the political to-and-fro within the East Timorese elite in the lead-up to the 2007 elections. While Fretilin remains the largest, most consolidated national party, opposition parties and groupings may gain stronger support and new alliances are likely to evolve.

Negotiations with various officers leading the different rebel groups in the East Timorese army and police have progressed, albeit slowly.

As the security situation continues to improve, aid agencies are increasingly concerned with the welfare of the large number of internally displaced people in the camps in and around Dili, estimated at 130,000 — around 10% of the entire population of East Timor. A significant proportion of these are children with health problems and poor access to adequate food and aid.

From Green Left Weekly, June 21 2006.
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