Observers may hold their breath in Timor-Leste as elections approach again, as the record for peace and stability is not encouraging. However, a senior UN official finds room for optimism.
THE former Portuguese colony of East Timor, annexed by Indonesia as Timor Timur, was wracked by violence before gaining hard-won independence as Timor-Leste in 2002.
But when Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri resigned in 2006, the new nation reverted to violent clashes, splitting society and the armed forces. Some 155,000 people fled their homes and the United Nations dispatched security forces to restore order.
Then as elections approached in 2007, factional violence erupted again. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was attacked and Prime Minister José Ramos-Horta was badly injured.
Meanwhile, Timor-Leste applied to join the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean). The country now enters another crucial period as it prepares for both parliamentary and presidential elections from early next year.
Ameerah Haq (pic) is a 35-year veteran of the United Nations (UN) who concurrently serves as head of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) and as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the country. She was in Kuala Lumpur recently and spoke about the situation in Timor-Leste.
Q: What is the purpose of your current visit to Malaysia?
A: It is for the conference (on East Asia’s contributions to peace-building in Timor-Leste), bringing together people from the region.
> The UN police force is due to withdraw by December next year. What happens if problems emerge later?
The presidential election is due early next year, and parliamentary elections towards the middle of the year.
As conditions for the withdrawal, UN Security Council members will take into account several factors.
These include whether the elections have been free and fair, and conducted without violence; whether the present calm and stability prevail; whether the results of the elections will be respected; whether the opposition will have the space to function as in a normal democracy; and whether the spirit of stability is in place.
> There have been reports of indiscipline and brutality among the local police (PNTL). Is it really ready to take over full policing duties for the whole country?
In general terms, all police forces of the world face certain charges. The PNTL is a newly-emerging institution.
The country itself is only 10 years old. For that period, it’s shown remarkable progress. The UN police are now there for primary policing duties. It handed over other policing duties in March this year.
We are now concentrating on capacity-building and mentoring.
> Have you ever considered that the December 2012 withdrawal date may be a little too ambitious?
No, our mandate was given by the Security Council. It was reached after looking at the restoration of peace and security after the 2006 crisis.
When those who had experienced the crisis look at the situation now, they are surprised at how remarkable the change has been.
People today feel the calm, safety and security in the country. If this situation of calm and security prevails (there should not be a problem). The Security Council can assess the situation as it develops.
> How do you find Timor-Leste’s response to questions of enlarging the UN’s role in areas like peacebuilding and the coming elections?
The Timor-Leste authorities have requested the support of the United Nations, and we will be doing exactly that.
The UN has been providing less and less assistance, because their own elected leaders have become stronger as they built themselves up. This has been happening right from 2002 through 2007 to 2012.
They have requested international observers for the elections. UN support will be there as per the request of the government.
> How has Timor-Leste lately lived up to its obligations on questions of justice and impunity?
Clearly there has been progress, with the establishment of a commission of inquiry and a committee on truth and reconciliation. And there has been follow-up on that, which is now in front of parliament.
It is for parliament to take forward these pieces of legislation. At the same time, there is also an active civil society calling for stronger action.
> How far have ethnic or tribal differences and conflicts been moderated?
It is not so much ethnic or tribal disputes, but since 2006, some of the factors contributing to conflict then have been addressed through the institutions of democracy.
But of course there are tensions as in any multi-party democracy. However, these are not being played out on the streets but in the halls of parliament.
> Do you accept that there are some things in peace and development that even the UN cannot do?
Yes, of course. This is a young nation; sometimes we hold nations that are just 10 years old to the same high standards as countries that are much older.
People need to understand that building the foundations of democracy take a long time. Within that context, Timor-Leste has done a lot to fulfil its Millennium Development Goals.
Not everything necessary has been done, and more needs to be done. In Malaysia you have Vision 2020; now Timor-Leste is also looking at long-term goals.
It requires investment.
> With elections within months, how long more do you think political stability will last?
I am optimistic because of the current climate of political stability.
Leaders of Timor-Leste across the political spectrum have been meeting and sending a common message to the public that the elections must be violence-free.
The 2006 crisis is still recent. It’s a reminder to people of how a country can be set back. They have a plan for the future, and they don’t want anything to reverse that.
There’s a political challenge because people want to be heard throughout the country. There are challenges, such as in the rural areas, but no rhetoric that is inflammatory.
> What are the prospects of international community support for UNMIT’s continued work?
Our Security Council-mandated mission came through members’ contributions. That our mission is to end is only something to celebrate, because it means Timor-Leste does not need this (outside help).
But UN activities will continue, which would require donors. That, I hope will happen.
> What are the differences within the Security Council on a further UN role?
The Security Council has not taken any position on that yet, but it will look at what will be a follow-up mission if (any) at all. The decision will be taken by the Security Council together with the Timor-Leste government, which are now looking at various alternatives for a successor (mission).
There’s certainly a consensus across the political spectrum on what the country’s needs and vision are. Timor-Leste is now in a very good position, through its own resources of oil and gas.
It’s managing these resources in an extremely responsible way. It does not have one cent of debt owed to anyone; it has a healthy position in resources.
> How different do you see a new government after the elections to be?
I don’t see a newly-elected government making any radical change from the way (the country) is proceeding now. That is, in terms of democracy, freedom of speech and press, institutions of democracy for public discussion and debate, and providing stimulus for socio-economic development.
> What are Timor-Leste’s biggest requirements from the international community?
Technical support to maintain and build security institutions, primarily the police, while its own capacities develop.
Also, institutional capacity-building, rule of law, justice, human rights, the right infrastructure decisions and implementing them.
For example, roads to rural areas, and implementing projects and programmes in health, education and human resource development.
> What has been UNMIT’s toughest challenge so far?
The Security Council mandate, in the provision and restoration of peace and security after the 2006 crisis.
(Essentially,) strengthening the national police as an institution, for a country almost devoid of peace and security, while building the capacity of these institutions.