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Timorous Nation-building

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
June 5, 2006

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After its violent birth as an independent state, East Timor seemed to merit mention in recent years only as a nation-building success story. Just this past April, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz paid a visit to the capital city of Dili and hailed the "bustling markets, the rebuilt schools, the functioning government—and above all, the peace and stability." But within weeks of that statement, the disgruntlement of dismissed soldiers spilled over into open conflict and gang warfare that has caused more than 100,000 people—one-tenth the country's population—to flee their homes. About 2,000 Australian-led forces are now seeking to restore order.

The crisis stems from an imbalance in the country's small armed forces—most of the officers come from the eastern part of the country and many rank-and-file members were recruited in the west. After soldiers' complaints of discrimination, the government sacked about 600 of them, and the ensuing protests have shattered the national unity of the small state and exposed a number of problems unresolved by UN administration. This Backgrounder looks at the fault lines in East Timor and the UN's other nation-building efforts. Another chief concern for East Timor is the economy. Seven years into its nation-building experiment, residents of Asia's poorest country are poorer (NYT), seeing a sharp decline with the departure of most of the 11,000 UN-led staff. The UN Security Council wanted to wrap up a mission costing hundreds of millions of dollars per year. But experts say East Timorese were also eager to seize full control, perhaps understandably since UN governance followed centuries of Portuguese rule and decades of Indonesian occupation. But leading figures such as Foreign Minister José Ramos-Horta are now acknowledging they may have been too hasty. He told the Washington Post: "If we are not mature enough, let's get the Australians to stay indefinitely."

East Timor's troubles come at a time of renewed international focus on nation-building. The newly created UN Peacebuilding Commission is intended to provide steady guidance in post-conflict societies, bringing together experts in development, security, and political reform. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour says East Timor's regression highlights the need for this commission (Reuters). The UN's top peacekeeping official, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, told a recent CFR briefing that the international community needs to improve on security reforms, in particular. "If you do not have a credible military, a credible police, you have no exit strategy, because as [soon as] you pull out, I mean, the violence restarts." A U.S. Congressional report on UN reform urges that the Peacebuilding Commission be more than "yet another layer of bureaucracy."

Three years after Saddam's ouster, U.S. failings in nation-building have come under especially heavy scrutiny because of the difficulties in Iraq. A 2005 CFR task force said the U.S. government is poorly organized for nation-building and urged the president to make stabilization and reconstruction operations a top foreign policy priority. This RAND Corporation report calls for improved U.S. planning to bolster intelligence, policing, and rule of law in post-conflict zones.

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