Timor Leste: The Limits of International Peacekeeping

29 October 2014

The percentage of post-conflict countries that recede back into violence is estimated to be anything from 20 to 56%. We can all agree that the figure – wherever it lies in that range – is not good enough and demonstrates unresolved problems with peacekeeping efforts across the world.

The involvement of the international community in Timor-Leste’s transition out of conflict provides a useful lens through which to examine the limits of international peacekeeping.

After Timor Leste voted for independence from Indonesia, a three-year conflict and a six-year United Nations peacekeeping intervention began. This intervention resulted in a stabilised situation, elections being held and a constitution being developed. However, nearly exactly one year after UN forces left in 2005, violence broke out within the military and subsequently spread throughout the country, revealing the limitations of international intervention in creating sustainable peace. Three factors that were particularly evident in Timor Leste were the generic, centralised approach to the problems, lack of communication between groups and a clash between short-term and long-term goals. 

Generic and centralising approaches to the issues

The first major problem affecting long-term stability in Timor Leste was that grassroots needs were stifled by generic approaches to peacekeeping. Flexibility is crucially important to effective grassroots work: every town, village and community has different needs that require varied approaches. Generic approaches often end up not being effective or sustainable at all because they can’t respond to place-specific issues (Wassel, 20). In Timor Leste, broad efforts to defuse tension between the police force and the army meant that community-level policework became a much lower priority; policemen were constantly changing, resulting in low levels of trust (Autesserre,150).

Urban areas are often at the centre of intervention plans, because that’s where government and businesses congregate. In Timor Leste, a disproportionate focus on the capital city, Dili, fueled rural/urban tension and political distrust: rural areas were experiencing immense poverty and seeing few institutional efforts to improve the situation.

The problem is a worldwide one. Similarly generic approaches are applied to every country where international intervention takes place. Specific comparisons have been drawn between intervention in Timor Leste and action in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Kosovo and Burundi, a group of countries that experienced hugely variant degrees of success.

Peacekeepers usually spend no more than two years in a country before being transferred somewhere new. Furthermore, interveners with technical skills are prized above those with local knowledge. As such, it embeds the belief that a particular set of universal principles always apply when resolving conflict, in spite of the hugely varying degree of success of interventions in past conflicts. Whilst Timor Leste has an annual national Priorities Process that provides guidelines for aid to be used in the most effective and nation-specific way, but many peaceworkers bemoaned their changing nature and were reluctant to change their working style to fit them.

Lack of communication between groups

The complexity of post-conflict situations means that lots of different groups with different aims co-exist; rebuilding infrastructure, supplying humanitarian aid, facilitating the return of displaced families and so on. Many of these activities overlap or inform one another, yet coordination and communication between groups is not the norm. The busy, strained working environment does not lend itself to questioning the status quo (Wassel i-ii).

Particularly problematic is the divide between interveners and locals. As a result of the lack of local knowledge and regular transfer of international peacekeeping forces, interveners often find themselves working in a country where they rarely engage with locals, gain a conversational level of the local language or understand the nuances of that country’s history, culture or traditions. This divide perpetuates the image of the hapless local who cannot contribute to peacebuilding processes, when in fact it is current peacebuilding practices that prevent their contribution. Whilst theoretically the importance of capacity building and giving locals authority is accepted, it rarely occurs in practice (UNRISD). By not initiating this gradual transition of power early on, it makes it even more difficult to successfully transfer power in the long-term.

It’s notable that the few who predicted the 2006 crisis were mostly locals themselves and interveners who were close to locals. Two of the most successful reconciliation initiatives involved dialogue – such as community reconciliation processes following the 1999 conflict and dialogue teams in 2006, using Timorese traditions to gain the trust of locals and rebuild relationships at a community-level.

Short-term over long-term priorities

In dealing with a conflict situation, the emphasis is inevitably placed on regaining security as quickly as possible. However, whilst strong efforts to create visible signs of peace and security were taken, desire to deal with issues regarding development and address the causes of the conflict were slim. This is because international bodies and governments tend to insist on short-term timeframes in order to limit their international and financial responsibility.

In Timor Leste, the UN missions rapidly created conditions for the return of displaced individuals, but didn’t ensure the sustainability of those returns, which led to urban overcrowding, disputes over property ownership and tension between the new government and its citizens (Wassel ii).

This lack of any long-term transitional plan – meaning Timor Leste struggled to develop or deal with socio-economic issues – was ultimately a cause of the 2006 crisis. Following this crisis, the UN Secretary-General (Kofi Annan) said that if socio-economic improvements do not become an integral part of peace missions, their failure is inevitable.

However, in spite of Annan’s statement, the intervention post-2006 has involved an equally short-sighted approach and there have been few efforts to deal with the social issues that have kept Timor Leste on the lowest rungs of the UN Human Development Index.

Ultimately, the positive effects of international peacekeeping forces can be seen worldwide, not least in Timor Leste. However, some of the entrenched practices, such as sending the same peacekeeper to twenty different locations over the course of their career and allowing short-term international attention spans to lead to long-term deterioration, need evaluation and improvement. The recent furore over the Prime Minister of Timor Leste being misquoted, supposedly speaking in support of Indonesian occupation, shows how turbulent and politically fragile Timor Leste still is, and how important long-term, localised and flexible peacekeeping practices are needed to ensure the country’s peace and prosperity.

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