DILI, Timor-Leste — Security sector reform (SSR) is a vital part of state-building, especially in Timor-Leste, a country that came close to civil war in 2006. Significantly, though, few Timorese political leaders interviewed about the issue wanted to speak about one of the highest priorities for the U.N. Mission in Timor-Leste: completing — and, by extension, to some degree implementing — a comprehensive security sector review.
Neither the review nor the overall role of the U.N. in SSR was raised in any of World Politics Review’s meetings with politicians in Timor-Leste. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Dili-based foreign diplomat told WPR, “The Timorese will do SSR the Timorese way.”
President Jose Ramos-Horta deflected the issue in a recent interview, focusing instead on the future of the army and police, in light of the imminent departure of resistance-era leaders due to retirement in the coming 2-3 years. Former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri told WPR that SSR proposals to date “are not really a reform,” as what is proposed does not “have Timorese ownership.”
All of the politicians interviewed spoke about the “resumption” of policing responsibilities by the Timorese police (PNTL) from the U.N. Mission. This is a vital part of SSR, given the police force’s implosion in the 2006 violence.
Moreover, the police has historically been subordinate to the army, known as the F-FDTL. That disparity was accentuated by the temporary Joint Command for national security set up after assassination attempts on President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in February 2008.
The domestic security situation improved in the months thereafter, but the police remained subordinate to the army, which still involves itself in internal security. According to eyewitnesses, U.N. police attempts to intervene in a public order incident in Maliana in June 2009, near the Indonesian border, resulted in F-FDTL guns being pointed at the multinational forces.
Some police, meanwhile, are involved in smuggling and extortion, and double up as members of the country’s martial arts gangs and clandestine societies. Participants in the 2006 violence are mostly still employed on the force, without any accountability for their actions.
It is estimated that over 100,000 Timorese may be gang members, itself a difficult security challenge. James Scambary, of the Timor-Leste Armed Violence Assessment (TLAVA), reminded WPR that “in 2006-7, over 1,300 U.N. police and later the [Australian-led] International Stabilisation Force could not prevent gang fighting,” which was an expression of both non-political and political violence.
Draft security laws recently submitted to the Timorese parliament include a civil protection component, featuring a proposed Authority for Civil Protection “to coordinate the civil protection agents at national, district and suco level.” This could have the effect of legitimizing or rewarding gangs and past perpetrators of violence with official status. If carried out in tandem with focused community security work, on the other hand, the measure could yield positive results.
It remains a point of discussion whether the influence of international peacekeepers has itself been entirely positive. Shona Hawkes of the NGO monitoring group La’o Hamutuk says that giving the multinational forces immunity from prosecution sets a negative example for local counterparts. There are almost weekly skirmishes between the Portuguese National Republican Guard (GNR) and Timorese security forces, with the most recent one allegedly involving a GNR assault on the prime minister’s personal security.
But SSR, in Timor-Leste and elsewhere, means more than fixing the police and army.
It is a wide-ranging concept, often difficult to implement in practice. By most definitions, it means addressing all of the “hard” — and a good chunk of the “soft” — parts of state power.
In Timor-Leste, according to a recent paper (.pdf) published by the Center for International Cooperation, that means addressing “important justice and rule-of-law issues, including poor judicial capacity, a long legacy of impunity, a decrepit detention system, parliamentary and civil society oversight of security institutions.”
Police reform is just a part of the process and will not work if the wide range of SSR needs are not dealt with. Timor-Leste, for instance, has a backlog of more than 4,000 legal cases, and there are multiple examples of impunity at the highest political levels.
Without the following priority list, by no means exhaustive, SSR will remain elusive in the country:
- Reform of the legal system and an end to impunity;
- Adequate economic growth and development that provides jobs and education for idle youth who proliferate in the gangs;
- Transparent implementation of the proposed Land Law, which aims to clarify land ownership issues that were muddied by cycles of displacement and contradictory legal systems inherited from various occupying powers.
To put the explosive land issue in context, perhaps 50 percent of Dili’s houses were “illegally” occupied after 1999. As James Scambary told WPR, “Much of the fighting and displacement in 2006 was over disputed land,” with over 100,000 Timorese driven from their homes at the time.
But perhaps the key to SSR is negotiating the political interests that have yet to be untangled, accommodated, or overcome. This is unsurprising, as SSR usually comes after conflict, when politics is either atrophied or compromised by links to armed factions, whether official or otherwise.
The U.N. views SSR as both a post-conflict and a conflict-prevention issue. But as the OECD-DAC handbook on Security System Reform and Governance says, it can be “difficult to find local ownership for SSR, especially where it is most needed, for example where security forces are part of the problem or where SSR may have the potential to change current power relationships.”
The U.N. inquiry into the events of 2006 highlighted fragile state institutions, weak rule of law, minimal parliamentary oversight, and deficiencies in the army and the police as contributing factors to the violence. In Timor-Leste, the security sector is characterized by personal relationships, political and regional affiliations, and old-boy networks of comradeships and rivalries built up over decades of resistance to violent foreign occupation.
It seems that whatever the government does, security forces will have considerable autonomy. The draft security laws task the heads of the military and police with proposing each force’s rules of engagement, with subsequent approval in both cases by the president and the council of ministers.
Former Prime Minister Alkatiri says SSR is “not only a technical issue, and we have to depoliticize the institutions.” His Fretilin government failed to do so, contributing to the 2006 meltdown. Whether its successor, led by an icon of the resistance doubling as both prime minister and defense minister, has the will to address SSR remains to be seen.Show