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The United Nations in East Timor Successes and FailuresEssay

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¶ … peacekeeping missions of the United Nations in East Timor ultimately turned out to be more or less unique in terms of the history of UN actions. A quick review of the specific details is necessary to analyze the UN's achievements in East Timor more closely. East Timor had been a former Portuguese colony on the divided island of Timor: West Timor had been an Indonesian territory. (The island is divided in a way that recalls other island territories like Papua-New Guinea, or the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, divided between two sovereign nations, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.) After the mid-1970s collapse of Portugal's fascist regime (which had been in place since before World War Two) East Timor was poised for the usual rigmarole of post-colonial independence. However the large presence of oil and gas deposits in the Timor Gap -- the area of the Pacific Ocean between the island of Timor, Indonesia, and Australia -- disrupted this process. Indonesia -- with the tacit approval of President Gerald Ford as well as the Australians -- invaded East Timor and made it a province of Indonesia. This was not a peacable annexation, and the Timorese consistently claimed independence: by the late 1990s, with the authoritarian Suharto regime in Indonesia finally collapsing, it seemed like a referendum for East Timor's independence might be possible. This led to the first United Nations action, UNAMET, the United Nations Mission to East Timor in 1999. The objective was to oversee the referendum and make sure it was conducted peacefully. However, when the vote came down overwhelmingly in favor of independence, the Indonesian military sponsored bloody reprisals in a campaign called "Operation Clean Sweep." The UN's response was to sponsor INTERFET, the International Force for East Timor, a multinational UN peacekeeping taskforce led by the Australian military, which managed to quell the violence and restore order. At this point, the United Nations took control over East Timor with UNTAET, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. Under UN supervision, East Timor was readied for independence, which was formalized in 2002, when East Timor became a UN member state.

It is, of course, UNTAET that makes the UN's peacekeeping missions in East Timor unique: the United Nations had never before assumed complete control over a nation in order to rebuild its basic governance and infrastructure systems. Jarat Chopra, who served as Head of the Office of District Administration for UNTAET, notes that "UNTAET was unique amongst experiments in transitional administration, since it was the first time the UN had assumed its role independently of any competing authority." (Chopra 2002, 984). Between October of 1999 and May of 2002, the UN conducted a peacekeeping mission that was essentially an interim civil government. Given that East Timor's independent sovereign nationhood is now a matter of fact, the UN's overall peacekeeping actions can be deemed a success. Indeed Allden and Amer note that "East Timor is considered one of the great United Nations success stories." (Allden and Amer 2007, 7).

But this does not mean that the individual missions were in themselves successful: after all, violence would continue in East Timor for another four years after it achieved independent nationhood in 2002. We might begin with UNAMET, which oversaw the independence referendum. UNAMET was a success to the extent that it permitted the vote to occur without undue interference from Indonesia, and managed to produce a vote overwhelmingly in favor of independence: Braithwaite notes that "in the absence of UNAMET, this democratic accomplishment could never have happened," but concedes that "even so, the election facilitation and monitoring part of the peace operation was only a partial success." (Braithwaite 2012, 287). The most glaring element was that, ultimately, the peace was not kept: the Timorese vote for independence was met with harsh violence sponspored by Indonesia. Pushkina and Maier note, however, that "the UN's capabilities to act in civil wars are mostly determined by the missions' mandates ...Because UNAMET was not structured to coordinate combat missions, there was little they could do to halt the violence leading up to the ballot and, most strikingly, to stop 'Operation. Clean Sweep'." (Pushkina and Maier 2012, 331). In other words, the limitations placed on the peacekeeping forces by the wording and purpose of the initial authorization for UNAMET meant that they could not engage in open combat -- a situation that had been familiar several years earlier when UN peacekeepers had been criticized for failing to intervene as Rwanda descended into brutal internecine bloodshed. If the UNAMET forces had fought back against Operation Clean Sweep, critics would be even harsher on the UN peacekeeping mission for essentially abetting the onset of civil war. And Braithwaite notes that civil war was what Indonesia was trying to provoke, and it was ultimately UN action that prevented East Timor from descending fully into that state; when the Indonesian-sponsored militias ran rampant during Operation Clean Sweep, Braithwaite emphasizes that

Falintil [the East Timor insurgents] held in cantonment watching out at the smoke as their homes and churches went up in flames and fearing that their families were being butch- ered. That cantonment was negotiated by UNAMET to prevent the very civil war scenario that Indonesian intelligence strategists sought to create. The UN therefore deserves credit in playing its part. (Braithwaite 2012, 288).

To this extent, then, UNAMET did succeed in keeping the peace. Despite the violence, UNAMET negotiated with the pro-independence militias to remain in their military garrisons (or "cantonment") and not turn a violent attack into a full-scale civil war.

Of course, the onset of violence in East Timor with Indonesia's Operation Clean Sweep had the effect, in Benzing's words, of "making all planning for UNAMET successor missions and an orderly transfer of power obsolete." (Benzing 2005, 307). Instead immediate action was taken to organize INTERFET, which is unambiguously the most successful UN peacekeeping action in East Timor. Allden and Amer describe it as "a very successful mission that could serve as a model for future collective forms of interventions under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations," and add that "being a 'coalition of the willing' with the approval on the United Nations, INTERFET enjoyed greater freedom than a regular United Nations peacekeeping unit." (Allden and Amer 2007, 8). It is worth noting, however, that certain aspects of INTERFET assured its success: one was that it entered East Timor with Indonesia's acquiescence, because (in Braithwaite's description) "the United States found the strength to threaten the Indonesian military leadership to allow armed peacekeepers ... to deploy quickly to prevent further slaughter, to demobilize the militias and supervise repatriation of the Indonesian military back to Indonesia so the referendum decision could be implemented ...With the authority of the U.S. Pacific Fleet standing behind it, the Australian-led military peacekeepers of INTERFET were able to negotiate adroitly with the Indonesian military to withdraw peacefully, and with the remaining Timorese militias to demobilize and surrender their weapons, though most fled across the border to Indonesian West Timor." (Braithwaite 2012, 288). If United States' military backing was crucial to INTERFET's military success, it is also worth noting that INTERFET's budget was handled by individual member states spearheading a UN-approved action; as Pushkina and Maier note, "in response to the post- referendum fallout, the UN established a trust fund for the Australian-led INTERFET, to which Japan promptly donated $100 m. Thanks, in no small part, to international donors, namely Australia, INTERFET was a successful, well-funded mission." (Pushkina and Maier 2012, 333). Therefore it is worth noting that the unambiguous success of INTERFET hinged, in many ways, on its departures from a traditional UN peacekeeping model: the United States and Australia provided military and financial backing to lend it additional authority, and its military coalition had broader leeway than UN peacekeeping forces ordinarily do.

The success of INTERFET led immediately to the establishment of the UNTAET, and this is where the UN's success is most hotly contested. UNTAET represented something unique for the UN, and has therefore been criticized harshly. Chopra, who served as part of UNTAET, stated bluntly in 2002 on the occasion of East Timor's full independence and entry into the UN that "UNTAET had given birth to a failed state." (Chopra 2002, 999). This was a bit premature, but his critique came from the fact that the UN had assumed a patriarchal role in assuming complete control over East Timor to establish its independent nationhood. Benzing observes somewhat astringently that "commentators overwhelmingly regard the work of UNTAET as a success. Some critics add that UNTAET indeed was a success, but only for the United Nations, and not for the East Timorese." (Benzing 2005, 371). However, this is to suppose that the problems East Timor would face after nationhood -- such as poverty and the lack of infrastructure -- were things the UN could have helped. To the extent that East Timor had any infrastructure upon independence in 2002, it was because UNTAET had managed to build it… [END OF PREVIEW]

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