East Timor: the building of a nation
An interview with Sergio Vieira de Mello
Transcrição de entrevista de Sergio Vieira de Mello para Fabien Curto Millet e Radhika Rathinasabapathysobre a transição do governo no Timor Leste para a revista Europa, do EAS
Publicado sob autorização dos editores
This Interview was originally published on the Europa Magazine of the EAS, European Affairs Society, a student society at Oxford University who invited Mr. Vieira de Mello for a speech in November 2001.
By Fabien Curto Millet – firstname.lastname@example.org
East Timor. A land oppressed by almost five centuries of foreign occupation. This started with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1524, soon followed by the Dutch and fierce fighting between the warring colonial powers. Indonesia came onto the scene when it gained independence from the Dutch in 1949, thereby absorbing West Timor into the Republic. Then in 1975, a change of government in Portugal led to the decolonisation of East Timor, creating a vacuum of power that the Indonesians were soon to fill by a full-scale invasion on December 7th. The occupation was resisted by local guerrilla groups, most notably the FRETILIN, a socialist movement with Marxist sympathies. The world was only too content to sit and watch, relieved at seeing the possibility of another Cuba at the doorstep of Australia vanish. Six months after the annexation of East Timor, America and Japan opposed UN resolutions condemning Indonesia, while Europe went for abstention. East Timor slowly sank into oblivion.
As Sergio Vieira de Mello remarked, the fate of this small half- island and its 739,000 people could hardly be further removed from Europe and its sphere of influence; making it a rather curious topic on which to address the European Affairs Society. But only at first sight. Europe is currently trying to strengthen its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), searching for ways in which to engage itself more proactively in crisis management. East Timor points to lessons that need to be learned. But there is something more fundamental. The human suffering of the people of East Timor resonates far beyond the territory itself. This, as all sufferings, is universal, and requires no justification to be addressed, however remote it may
Recent history has been somewhat more encouraging for the East Timorese, although at a heavy price. In May 1998, the overthrow of President Suharto and the subsequent instating of B J Habibie as President brought the flexibility that eventually allowed a plebiscite on independence for East Timor. Under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General, an agreement was signed in New York on May 5 1999 between Indonesia and Portugal. The agreement entrusted him with organising and conducting a referendum to ascertain the East Timorese position on a special autonomy for East Timor within the Republic of Indonesia. The East Timorese expressed an overwhelming support for independence (80%) in the referendum on the 30th August.
Pro-integration militias moved to punish the East Timorese for the result, whilst the Indonesian security forces watched idly when not themselves actively participating in the incidents. The situation deteriorated, forcing the evacuation of the great majority of UN personnel present. After days of round-the-clock emergency negotiations, the Security Council voted unanimously to authorise the creation of a multinational force– INTERFET, the International Force in East Timor. INTERFET arrived to restore
law and order on September 19.
Sergio Vieira de Mello was familiar with the distress of the East Timorese people from his work as UN Emergency Relief coordinator, notably dealing with the repatriation of the 240,000 refugees displaced to West Timor. He was appointed
Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Transitional Administrator for East Timor on November 17. By that time, INTERFET had largely stopped the violence. But there was a country, still there, to be built.
East Timor held the first free elections in its history on August 30 2001.
EUROPA: Mr. Brahimi, UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan, is currently trying to build a broad-based coalition for the post-Taleban era. Are there any lessons from the Timorese experience that you think are relevant here?
Not really. The two cases are completely different. The Afghan case is hugely complex; East Timor is simple in comparison. There are many forces at play in Afghanistan. The factions there have been at odds with one another for, not decades, but centuries. A broad-based coalition is much more difficult to form than in East Timor, where there were only two opposing forces – the pro-independence and prointegration. So comparatively speaking, we have no lessons to provide here. But in other areas, yes definitely. This will no doubt become clearer in my answers to your further questions.
EUROPA: Bernard Kouchner, former Administrator of Kosovo, is a passionate advocate of the right of the international community to intervene in a country’s domestic affairs when human rights are concerned. Do you share this view?
Ah, yes, my friend Bernard. (laughter) When France sponsored a resolution along these lines in the General Assembly (in the late 80’s or early 90’s) – what you know to be the ‘droit d’ingérence’ (NB: a ‘right of intervention’) – the international context
was different from what it is today. I dislike the word ‘intervention’, but effectively it is what the UN has done both in Kosovo and in East Timor. My entire presentation to your society will be about a form of international intervention. It is true that both in
the case of Kosovo and East Timor, human rights were violated on a massive scale. This was certainly one factor behind the intervention, but probably not the only factor. I do strongly agree that sovereignty and territorial integrity and not excuses when states fail to realise the ir obligations to the citizens.
EUROPA: Do you feel the UN was justified in carrying out the referendum of auto-determination when and how it did, despite the alarming incidents that had been taking place throughout the year, and the climate of intense tension?
Definitely yes. This is not just what Sergio says; that is what the Timorese leadership said when asked the question. This was the first and last window of opportunity given to choose between independence and integration. It is true that there were signs from
early 1999 that the election campaign and the post-election phase could be marked by violent incidents. It was obvious that militias had been trained, indoctrinated and armed to intimidate the population during the run-up and to punish the East Timorese should they opt for independence. It was obvious that, had the UN insisted on deploying troops during the UNAMET (NB: United Nations Mission in East Timor) mandate, Indonesia would have turned down the consultation; Habibie would have withdrawn the offer, leaving East Timor in the status quo ante – it would still be under Indonesian rule. This choice presented itself in the negotiations of the 5th May 1999 agreement between Portugal and Indonesia. The choice was difficult and stark, and one over which Kofi Annan agonised. He consulted the East Timorese leaders, who agreed that the opportunity could not be missed. It was the right thing to do; I can only regret that we could not intervene sooner.
EUROPA: When you were appointed Transitional Administrator for East Timor, how did you go about helping the Timorese build their nation? What elements did you focus on and why?
Your question covers a huge and very broad area. Security Council Resolution 1272 is, as you know, just a page and a half long. It gave us full authority; executive, legislative and administration of justice. The mandate was broad, in fact, the most ambitious in the history of peace negotiations. It did not tell us how to go about doing things, how to prioritise – which was a difficult task. What we found was a devastated country. Humanitarian assistance was our top priority. But there was also no judiciary, no education system, no police, no defence force, no representative forms of government. Nothing, nothing, nothing. So, we determined our priorities, not in an arbitrary manner, but by responding to what we felt was needed in the early days of the mission. First, we assisted the population, the vast majority of which had been displaced, either internally or to West Timor. This was an obvious Number One for many months. Second, we opted for a judiciary, to create a new system. This involved recruiting and training judges and prosecutors; none of whom had any experience whatsoever. Third, guaranteeing law and order. We moved from INTERFET to an international police force and a proper UN peacekeeping mission. This was to guarantee the well-being and safety of the population. Then we moved on to new tasks by setting up a new public administration and reconstruction programme in early 2000.
EUROPA: When the constituent assembly was formed following the August 30 election, you declared “We continue to face the pains of building a new nation and its institutions from scratch with very limited means”. What were you referring to when you mentioned “means”, and can the international community do anything to provide this?
“Means” means many different things. The obvious meaning is money, and there we cannot complain. Because East Timor generated such a level of international interest and solidarity, donors were very quick in making pledges and disbursing them. Since I will be addressing the European Affairs Society, I will highlight that Europe was very good to us. European Union members, both individually and jointly through the European Commission, were very quick to donate to the two main trust funds; the World Bank fund and the UN Trust Fund.
“Means” also means human resources. There we were very slow, both in Kosovo and in East Timor. We had no experience in go verning a territory. We did not know how to recruit the right teams of people in such specialised sectors as banking, taxation, budget, treasury, customs, immigration, agriculture, health, education, correctional services … All things that make a government function, we had no experience in. We had never actually run a government; the UN’s role has always been to provide technical assistance to governments. It took us months to find the right kind of people; it was not just about finding individuals, but sectoral teams. In the future we must have specialised personnel on standby, at our disposal, through arrangements with our member countries. If such a system had been in place, these teams could have been deployed in the early weeks of the mission. But I had to wait for months.“Means”, finally, also means equipment. This part was relatively easy in Kosovo. The UN’s logistic base is located in Brindisi, Italy. Kosovo was just across the Adriatic sea. The sheer remoteness of East Timor was a sizeable problem here. It took us months to receive much of the equipment – computers etc. Everything there in the UNAMET days had been destroyed, which was a huge handicap in the mission.
EUROPA: Are you confident that the institutions you will leave behind in East Timor are the kind of institutions that will be able to resist the storm of future events, and if so why? What is the role of the UN in this endeavour? The role of the UN was and is to create all the normal institutions of a democratic state from scratch. The institutional situation we found the country in was not just a ground- zero situation, but was sometimes even below that. It was an unprecedented, ambitious, huge task that we were given.
As for the institutions we will leave behind, I am quite confident of their survival. That is because we are doing things the right way; slowly and properly rather than in a rush. The recruitment of new civil servants and their training is now in full swing. We are doing our utmost to protect the system from corruption, a problem that plagues much of the third world – which is, by the way, one of the main concerns in neighbouring Indonesia. We are putting in place a new judiciary. I am very proud of the young East Timorese law students with fresh BAs from Indonesian universities that are to become the new judges and prosecutors of the system. I still remember how timid and insecure they were at first, but now I see them assertive and doing the job feeling committed, having learned a great deal from their international mentors. This makes me see how fast the Timorese can catch up the lost centuries. They have… [Mr. De Mello leaned forward, and, moving the hand] Une rage de bien faire, de vite faire – you will translate that (NB: a rage to do well, to do fast).
Finally, the performance of the constituent assembly elected in August – that is likely to transform itself into the first parliament for East Timor – is truly remarkable. It is obvious how serious and how committed its members are and how respectful they are
of the opinions of one another. They are working with great cohesion and are exercising the legislative mandate with an impressive degree of maturity. This is also true of the Timorese people as a whole, as was displayed on election day. And this is the greatest guarantee that peace and stability are durable in East Timor. The population is not prepared to accept a return to the practices of the past, and fully intends to exercise its most fundamental right: peace. There are solid foundations for democracy in East Timor.
EUROPA: In your view, how will the relationship with Indonesia develop once the UN leaves?
Our relations with Indonesia have been good since the early days of the mission. Wahid was truly sympathetic to cause of the Timorese. He visited us in late February 2000, only four months after the transitional administration was put in place. It was a powerful message both to the Timorese and to the world at large. I met Megawati five weeks ago. Although a staunch nationalist, she has recognised and accepted the choice made by the Timorese for independence. She has turned that page and is looking at the future of Indonesian-Timorese relations without resentment or bitterness; relations that will be state-to-state. It demonstrates that Megawati is a stateswoman. This is a very sound basis for the future of bilateral relations. A glance at the map suffices to show how vital this is for East Timor. Economic and trade relations should come to reinforce this. There is no doubt that East Timor’s membership of ASEAN will also contribute to this kind of environment. I am very hopeful.
EUROPA: What is the role of the South-East Asia region in supporting this new nation?
It is fundamental. First, they have already demonstrated the ir solidarity in the deployment of civilian contingents, in which Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are represented. The commander of the defence force is a Thai general. Malaysia and Singapore have already contributed in terms of capacity-building through providing training for East Timorese civil servants. There is no doubt that should East Timorese join ASEAN, the web of political, economic and technological relationships will thicken to the benefit of East Timor. East Timor is mindful of this. I will not be surprised if East Timor signs the treaty of amity of ASEAN. We will do our best to facilitate this.
EUROPA: What is main lesson you draw from your work there?
There are several lessons, as you will hear later in my address. The main lesson has come from the fact that the UN has risen with great difficulty to the challenge of a government-type mandate from the Security Council. It was mind-boggling in the early days, and we had to interpret our task humbly, particularly given the fact that we were given full powers under Chapter 7. We could not run it on our own without running the risk of neo-colonialism, which was paradoxical since our organisation militated for decolonisation. The main lesson is that power, however absolute, must be shared. Perhaps I should have done so earlier. Some of the transitional institutions, which were created last year, should have been created 4 to 5 months earlier. It would have made my life easier, and it would have given an earlier feeling of empowerment and ownership of the actual administration of their own nation. This is the big lesson Brahimi is referring to in his report; do not try to import preconceived and precooked strategies and wise schemes. They must be homegrown. The sooner you create mechanisms for nationals to participate in the formation of their nation, the better.