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East Timor threatened by weak security forces

Inter Press Service - January 18, 2008

Thalif Deen, United Nations – The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), which monitors some 60 crisis-affected countries worldwide, has appealed for UN and international assistance to revitalize East Timor's fledgling police and armed services in order to avoid a potentially violent civil conflict in that relatively new nation state.

"There is no national security policy, and there are important gaps in security-related legislation," says a new ICG report released Thursday. "The police suffer from low status and an excess of political interference."

The study says the East Timorese army still trades on its heroism in resisting the 24-year-old Indonesian occupation but has not yet found a new role. It has also been plagued by regional (east-west) rivalry.

"There is a lack of transparency and orderly arrangements in political control as well as parliamentary and judicial oversight with respect to both forces," the study warns.

John Virgoe, ICG's South East Asia project director, says: "The government has a chance, while international troops maintain basic security and the United Nations offers assistance, to conduct a genuine reform of the security sector, but it will have to move quickly."

Four years after East Timor, officially called Timor-Leste, gained independence in May 2002, its police and army were battling each other in the streets of the capital, Dili. The April-June 2006 crisis "left both institutions in ruins and security again in the hands of international forces".

The crisis was precipitated by the dismissal of almost half the army and caused the virtual collapse of the police force.

John M. Miller, national coordinator of the New York-based East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), told IPS the breakdown in Timor-Leste's security forces was pivotal in the 2006 crisis. The fragmented approach to Timor's police and military by international donors contributed to this, he charged.

"They and Timor-Leste's leaders must accept their responsibilities in contributing to the crisis and learn from it," Miller said.

Key questions which were not clearly reviewed at independence must be examined, he added. These include whether or not Timor needs a military, as envisioned by the resistance coalition prior to the referendum.

If Timor is to have a military, he said, its purpose and use must be looked at carefully, and follow the constitution. Police and soldiers must be adequately trained for whatever role they are expected to take on. The politicization of both institutions must end. "None of this is likely to happen with wide consultation throughout Timorese society, as envisioned by the UN Security Council in its call for a Security Sector Review," Miller said.

That this consultation has yet to take place must concern all who wish the best for Timor-Leste, he added.

"The decision to institute conscription should be abandoned. It is unnecessary and coercive and not in keeping with a nation that has placed human rights principles at its core," Miller said.

A six-member delegation from the Security Council, headed by South Africa, issued a 10-page report in December following a visit to East Timor.

The report said the larger challenges in the security sector – including the need to improve interaction between the security institutions, strengthen the legal framework, increase operational capabilities and enhance civilian oversight – should be addressed in the context of the security sector reform process.

The study quoted President Jose Ramos-Horta as saying: "It would take time to develop a professional police force, and UN assistance would be needed."

The Security Council mission was "of the view that Timor-Leste will continue to need UN assistance in a number of areas in the foreseeable future."

The report also recommends that the current UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), a successor to the former UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) established in May 2002, should be continued when its mandate expires in February 2008.

Meanwhile, the ICG report says that UN police and Australian-led peacekeepers maintain security in a situation that, while not at a point of violent conflict, remains unsettled.

If the new government is to reform the security sector successfully, it must ensure that the process is inclusive by consulting widely and resisting the temptation to take autocratic decisions.

A systematic, comprehensive approach, as recommended by the Security Council, should be based on a realistic analysis of actual security and law-enforcement needs.

"Unless there is a non-partisan commitment to the reform process, structural problems are likely to remain unresolved and the security forces politicized and volatile," the report says.

The ICG also points out that the problems in East Timor run deep. Neither the UN administration nor successive Timorese governments did enough to build a national consensus about security needs and the kind of forces required to meet them.

The government that took office in August 2007 has an opportunity while international troops maintain basic security and the UN offers assistance to conduct a genuine reform of the security sector, drawing on the experiences of other post-conflict countries.

"But international goodwill is not inexhaustible," says the report, pointing out that "there are already signs of donor fatigue. So it needs to act fast."