A Task Unfinished in East Timor
Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Washington last month to seek renewed assurances from the White House that the United States remains committed to supporting his government. At a news conference alongside President Bush, Karzai noted that his country would continue to "need a lot of support" from the United States. Hoping to ensure it, he proposed a "strategic partnership" with this country.
Karzai is right to be concerned for Afghanistan: He understands that it will be years before democracy can take root there and that history shows the United States and its allies are rarely willing to wait that long. For confirmation of this truth, one need only consider the case of another recent recipient of U.S. attention: East Timor.
In 1999 an East Timorese vote for independence from Indonesia sparked a campaign of looting, arson and violence by local militias and elements of the Indonesian military. As the world watched closely, a U.N.-authorized military force intervened to restore order, then established a powerful U.N. mission to administer the territory and prepare it for independence. There has been a strong U.N. presence in East Timor ever since, though it was scaled back after Timor became independent in 2002. The U.N. Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) has played a critical role in Timor's democratic development, working within and outside the government to train, advise, fund and advocate on behalf of democratic processes.
This year the secretary general wrote the Security Council to request that UNMISET's mandate be extended for an additional year, in what would have been its fourth extension. His letter described the successes achieved but also the problems still facing the nascent Timorese democracy. These challenges include poorly trained and corrupt security forces that clash with each other, continued internal instability fostered by armed militias, an overwhelmed, unqualified judiciary, a weak local press and a parliament and prime minister with an often shaky commitment to democracy. In just one worrisome recent case, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri attacked the country's largest and oldest daily newspaper, banning its reporters from government news conferences and evicting it from its office, for reporting -- truthfully -- that famine had struck parts of the country. Timor's democratic culture, it is widely acknowledged, has yet to mature.
The United States opposed an extension of UNMISET, arguing that further development could be supported by nongovernmental organizations and foreign aid programs. It eventually agreed to a new U.N. Office in Timor Leste (UNOTIL), a stripped-down version of the previous mission with no peacekeeping component. Though less influential, UNOTIL will ensure that the U.N. advisers continue their work in shoring up democratic institutions in Timor -- but only for another year, after which its mandate will expire.
The opposition of the United States and others to UNMISET's extension, and their insistence on a limited, one-year mandate, is representative of a larger conceptual failing in democracy-building. Despite the White House's assurances to countries such as Afghanistan, the United States -- and much of the rest of the international community -- has yet to accept the fact that it takes significant time to build a democracy strong enough to survive in an environment poisoned by oppression, violence, abuse or dictatorship. It takes time to create, train and nurture an independent and impartial judiciary, a professional police force, an apolitical military, an ethos of civil service, active media and a government tolerant of criticism. In short, it takes time for a healthy civil society to put down roots.
If large U.N. advisory missions end before these roots are deep enough in places such as Timor, before democratic institutions are strong enough to stand alone, then the entire endeavor may fail. In Timor, the United States is gambling that by the end of next year democratic institutions will be strong enough to stand alone. If the United States is right, the United Nations will save money and manpower. But if it is wrong, the accomplishments of the past six years will be steadily reversed, billions of dollars and years of work will be wasted, and the likelihood of the United Nations' ever again being able to undertake such an ambitious nation-building program will be severely undermined.
Rather than replacing UNMISET with a weaker and short-lived successor, the United States should have taken the opportunity to reaffirm that the United Nations and the rest of the world will remain committed to Timor not just for the next year but for as long as it takes for real democracy to become established. Democracy-building will never be easy. If it is to be done successfully, international leaders must understand that the process cannot be rushed. Democracy cannot be purchased or imposed -- it must be grown. The writer lived in East Timor in 2003 while interning at the U.N. human rights unit and researching the special panels. He now works in Cambodia.