default Building the Wrong Peace: Re-viewing the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor Through a Political Settlement Lens

Author: Sue Ingram
Institution: Australia National University
Publication Date: April 2012
Keywords: Political Settlement, Conflict, Governance, Multi-national/ International Institutions, Peace Processes, Peacebuilding, Peacekeeping


In October 1999 the United Nations deployed a multi-national peace-keeping force in East Timor to restore peace and security. Over the next two and a half years, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) oversaw the country’s separation from Indonesia after 24 years of occupation and constructed the organisational framework for a new state. But the author argues that UNTAET failed to nurture an inclusive internal political settlement as the necessary condition for lasting stability. She examines why this issue largely fell under UNTAET’s radar, and how this paved the way for conflicted politics following independence. 

Key Issues:

UNTAET’s mandate was extremely broad and it exercised quasi-sovereign legislative and executive powers. Although its mandate required UNTAET to consult and cooperate closely with the East Timorese people, there was no express provision to include them in executive decision-making or the administration of those decisions. The author argues that this gave rise to two fundamental misunderstandings on the part of UNTAET: first, it paid insufficient attention to the complex political dynamics playing out around it; second, it assumed that there was broad agreement among parties on the institutional design of the new state.

While there was strong elite consensus in the late-1990s in East Timor on the goal of independence, this did not extend to how - and by whom - political power should be organised and exercised. Under immense pressure to prepare Timor for independence and complete its mission quickly, UNTAET pressed ahead with an essentially technical exercise in building the machinery of government. This came at the expense of the thorough consultation required to nurture an inclusive internal political settlement. This, the paper argues, deepened the fissures between sections of Timorese elites and between elite interests and the wider society. 

Decisions taken by UNTAET in a number of different domains inadvertently shaped the character of the political settlement which emerged:

• UNTAET did not accept as its principle dialogue partner the umbrella group which brought together all the major Timorese parties, choosing to engage instead with a narrower group of elite parties which deepened partisan political competition.

• When it came to the organisation of the new government, UNTAET arrangements were inherently centrist in an environment where the centre had no capacity. Village-level engagement was limited and UNTAET invested little in understanding indigenous political organisation.

• The process adopted to develop the country’s new constitution limited public participation and was based on a rapid timetable. This had the effect of marginalising key elite interests and contributed to the build-up of disaffection and frustration.

• Rather than establishing a strong presidential system as proposed by the Constituent Assembly, political power was invested in a Prime Minister as under a UK Westminster style parliamentary system. This created two rival power centres and also had the effect of reducing parliamentary scrutiny of government action and legislation.

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