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Timor-Leste declares open season on the UN

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7 June 2011 12:24

Dr Gordon Peake worked on police reform in Timor-Leste from 2008 to 2011. He is now at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, ANU. These are his private views.

It is open season on the United Nations Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT).

In the last few weeks, the Prime Minister has accused the organisation of maligning him, and many others have gleefully piled on. UNMIT, once lauded by Timorese for helping to usher in independence, seems to be held in ill-esteem and barely disguised contempt by many members of the political elite.

The problems have their origins in serious differences of opinion between the Government and the UN over the release of the UNDP's Human Development Report. The situation escalated when rambunctious investigative newspaper Tempo Semanal  published a leaked copy of a Powerpoint presentation prepared by the UN for senior mission managers. One (badly written) line stood out:

The Executive, especially the Prime Ministers seeking more and more power at the expense of Parliament and the Judiciary (the Audit Ct. will generate particular pol [political] hostility). By the end of 2012 this may have diminished the effective roles of the other two pillars and significantly reduced the accountability of the Executive and the rule of law, with the rule of the Prime Minister.

The story set off a political storm. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was furious, publicly dressing down UN staff and accusing them of hoping for misery in the country in order to prolong their tenure. He also got stuck into the Timorese staff working for the UN and accused them of being afflicted with 'mental colonialism'.

A few days later, President Jose Ramos-Horta weighed in to accuse UNMIT of not being fit to tie the Prime Minister's shoes. With an election in the offing, parliamentarians from the governing coalition have been robust in their condemnation, as have a wide range of civil society actors. The issue has been front-page news over the last two weeks in Dili, even knocking the case of a salacious sex video allegedly involving Timorese police officers down the headlines.

It has also detracted from more serious issues such as the terrible state of the roads, which makes travel in many directions beyond the capital downright treacherous and is impeding economic development. Then there's an inflation rate which government statistics estimate to be 13.7% in the last year.

With Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) to Timor-Leste, Ameerah Haq, overseas, UNMIT went into panic mode. First, it said views in the Powerpoint slide were not the 'official position', and, when the SRSG returned, it proffered a verbal and then a written apology to Xanana Gusmao.

The Prime Minister — who meets with the SRSG irregularly — accepted the UN's contrition. There was no discussion as to whether the allegation had merit, even though many of the issues in the slide had been hinted at in much more careful language in previous reports to the Security Council on the situation in Timor-Leste.

Emotions remain raw. The day after Xanana Gusmao accepted the apology, a member of his Government fired another broadside. Julio Tomas Pinto, the Secretary of State-Defence authored an article entitled UNMIT's Mission: Develop or Destroy, which was published in the majority of national newspapers. Among other things, he likened the UN to a blind cow and accused members of its staff of working for national governments as opposed to the common cause. The UN has refused to comment on what it deems is a private opinion.

Timor-Leste's political leaders have an acute case of the twelve-year itch when it comes to the UN. The organisation is by now on its fourth peacekeeping mission in the small half-island. The Timorese Government — flush with cash from oil and gas reserves — feels it is time to run its own affairs, unbridled by foreigners poking their noses around and venturing opinions on how they are doing it. 

At the same time, the Government realises, grudgingly, that it is dependent on some foreign advice. 'Like it or not, we need advisers', said the Prime Minister a few months back, around the time of the budget debates.

It is now incumbent on the Timorese Government to spell out exactly what it wants these advisers to do and in what regard the UN (and Australia and other donors) can most profitably assist. Trying to figure out what the Government wants from the international community is oftentimes akin to a game of blind man's bluff. It is healthy to be critical, but more useful to propose workable alternatives.

As for the UN, searching internal debate is required in both Dili and New York as to how the organisation can make itself less susceptible to such criticism and how to demonstrate prior usefulness so as to head it off. Timor-Leste is not the only post-conflict state fed up with internationals.

Photo of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao by Flickr user rtppt.

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