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Guns in Timor-Leste

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24 October 2008 08:31

Guest blogger: Jim Della-Giacoma is an Associate Director at the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council in New York City.

After finalizing the budget, Timor-Leste's National Parliament is expected in the near future to reconsider a draft firearms law unusually defeated on the floor of the assembly last June. The new law was intended to update the existing UNTAET Regulation 2001/5, which created a right to private firearms ownership even before the country re-established its nationhood in May 2002.

By any international yardstick, Timor-Leste does not have a firearms problem. But as we saw with the attacks on the President and Prime Minister in February, a few guns in the wrong hands is enough to make big trouble.

One concern about the draft law in this barely post-conflict country was that its vague drafting broadly expanded the right to bear arms with few restrictions on ownership. Such laws are contentious in any country. In the US, from where I write, the highest courts and smallest legislatures continue to tinker with the balance of rights and responsibilities for gun ownership almost 217 years after the Second Amendment was adopted. Even a casual observer of the current election campaigns at the national, state, and local level would see there is no countrywide consensus on who can carry what guns, where, and when, with new laws and fresh legal challenges still in the news and part of the presidential campaigns.

Internationally, there is little clarity to be offered on 'best practice', with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and even the United States Institute of Peace providing different guidance on how to draft guns laws.

Without getting into the argument about the right of Timorese to bear arms, which is not mentioned in Title II (Personal Rights, Freedoms and Guarantees) of the country’s constitution, the AUSAID-funded Timor-Leste Armed Violence Assessment has put down a few practical ideas in Tetum, Portuguese, Indonesian, and English for Timorese legislators and opinion leaders to consider. These suggestions (see this commentary by researcher Sarah Parker of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey), include tightening licensing requirements by considering restrictions on types and numbers of weapons that can be owned as well as explicitly restricting the carrying of firearms in public. Also, requiring thorough record keeping and registration would at least allow future governments to answer the vexing question after decades of civil war, occupation, and internal conflict: how many weapons are there in Timor-Leste and who holds them?

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