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Timor-Leste: Looking for a UN exit strategy?

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28 January 2009 09:31

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

Citing continued stability in Timor-Leste, the Department of Defence announced last week that a Company-sized group of about 100 ADF soldiers would return to Australia after a four-month deployment, leaving behind 650 Australian and 140 New Zealand troops. Does ongoing 'stability' mean that a lasting peace is being built in post-conflict Timor-Leste? And what does an exit strategy look like?

We will read the official version when the UN Secretary-General releases his next periodic report ahead of a meeting in February of the UN Security Council. Given its unfinished business, the mandate of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT)  is expected to be extended, particularly since Timor-Leste has itself asked for a substantive peacekeeping presence until the next election cycle in 2012.

The UN presence in Timor-Leste began almost 10 years ago and we now have a good case study of a serial UN peace operation that looks more like a complicated tango dance rather than a textbook continuum from peacemaking to peacekeeping and then peacebuilding. A decade on, the UN is still searching for an exit strategy.

Conscious of the criticism that it was planning to leave prematurely in May 2006, just when the country was stumbling into crisis, in August the UNSC asked the Secretary-General to develop a medium-term strategy with appropriate benchmarks to measure and track progress. Or, to paraphrase a recent paper on Peace Consolidation Benchmarking, develop a methodical way of answering the question: 'When will the UN know when it is not needed any more?' This is expected to part of the forthcoming report and/or subsequent UNSC mandate extension.

A key role the UN has played in Timor-Leste since 2006 is through its UN Police presence to restore some sense of security through its policing presence, which has also been responsible for vetting and rebuilding the Polícia Nacional Timor-Leste (PNTL). In a statement to the UNSC in August, Timor-Leste’s Foreign Minister Zacarias Da Costa revealed some of the ambivalence about the role of the UN police after almost ten years of Timorese cohabiting with them.

Rightly so, the democratically elected government wants to be in charge, but it is not quite ready to fold the protective umbrella provided by an ongoing UN peace operation. Da Costa said he hoped that a 'robust' UN police presence would continue through and beyond the current UNMIT mandate that ends on 26 February.

For Timor-Leste, an ongoing UN mission is as much an insurance policy as is the ADF’s sustained presence. The forthcoming benchmarks may provide the map to the exit for the UN in Timor-Leste, though it may well be a technocratic façade for an old fashioned subjective political decision by the most political of UN bodies.

If a benchmarking exercise is being undertaken, it might also be interesting to ask the Government of Timor-Leste: when will it know it no longer need the UN (or the ADF)? And better still, what about Timorese citizens? How secure do they need to feel before they would be happy to see the foreign forces go?

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