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FOCUS June 2003 Volume 32

Reconstruction in East Timor: Critical Issues on UNTAET

Mericio J. Dos Reis

The United Nations-organized 1 30 August 1999 referendum allowed the East Timorese to choose their fate, after a long and difficult independence struggle. With the referendum results showing overwhelming support for an independent East Timor, widespread violence occurred, aimed particularly at East Timorese pro-independence activists. Three weeks later an appalled international community was forced to create the International Force in East Timor (InterFET). But by the time InterFET arrived, the Indonesian military and their militia allies had completed a scorched-earth campaign, destroying the country's infrastructure, displacing two-thirds of the population, and killing thousands. The powerful Indonesian authorities failed to take measures to stop the violence. The complicity of the Indonesian military leadership in the violence is undeniable.

A United Nations Security Council Resolution in 1999 established the Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). It has the mandate to provide security and maintain law and order throughout the territory of East Timor; establish an effective administration; assist in the development of civil and social services; ensure the coordination and delivery of humanitarian assistance, rehabilitation and development assistance; support capacity-building for self-government; and assist in the establishment of conditions for sustainable development. 2 UNTAET started operating on 28 February 2000. Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, appointed as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Transitional Administrator, had absolute power over all branches of the transitional UN administration. East Timorese leaders were given token consultative role. They were given some power to make decisions only after almost two years of the UNTAET administration had passed, and after the first elections were held. But even at this stage all their decisions were subject to approval by Mr. de Mello.

Some of UNTAET's objectives were accomplished successfully, but others proved to be no more than empty promises proclaimed in the international community. One success is in the peace and order area. InterFET - which was replaced by a UN Peace Keeping Force (PKF) - minimized the threat posed by the Indonesian military (TNI) and its militias. Also, UNTAET did an adequate job in running peaceful elections for the members of the Constituent Assembly and the President.

But several other objectives were not given adequate attention and consideration.


UNTAET international staff and peacekeeping troops had access to high-quality medical care from the various foreign militaries, and would often be evacuated to Darwin, Australia for advanced treatment. The East Timorese have no such options. Based on suggestions from international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to minimize East Timor's government expenditures, the budget for healthcare is significantly lower than the amount under Indonesian rule. The adverse effect of this situation can be observed in the condition of the hospitals in the country. They lack personnel (especially doctors), basic equipment and supplies, even in the largest and most advanced center for healthcare in the nation, the National Hospital in Dili. Until the beginning of 2003, there was a severe lack of medicine across the nation. Without access to medical services, the rural population turned to traditional medicine, which often has dubious results. Nevertheless, serious cases in the rural areas have to be brought to the National Hospital to receive treatment. Until this year, no significant changes in the healthcare system and human resources across East Timor have been done, and the healthcare facilities, including the hospitals, are still very limited.


While UNTAET repaired many school buildings, educational resources are still lacking. Tetum- or Portuguese-language books have not been distributed well, and a national school curriculum does not exist. The continued use of either 'Bahasa Campur' (a mix of Indonesian and Tetum languages) or Bahasa Indonesia as language of instruction creates problems. One of the biggest problems is the lack of experienced East Timorese teachers. The departure of Indonesian teachers, who constituted the majority of the teachers under the Indonesian rule, caused a vacuum. The limited opportunity of becoming schoolteachers caused many East Timorese to lose interest in this profession. Many private universities have no adequate resources - libraries, fully qualified instructors, school buildings, and proper curriculum. UNTAET left all these problems to the new government of East Timor.

Judicial system

UNTAET's success in providing security and peace can only be sustained by a working judicial system. But it failed to give priority to the reconstruction of this institution.

The judicial system was destroyed as a result of the violence that occurred after the independence vote in the referendum of 1999. Court buildings and law libraries were destroyed, while the lawyers and judicial personnel fled. Of the 60 East Timorese lawyers that remained, none had any adequate experience as a judge or public prosecutor.

There is still a severe lack of judges and lawyers across the system. Many people await trial indefinitely, as the fragile system is unable to make time to hear the cases or make decisions. Others are waiting to appeal sentences, as it was almost a full year after UNTAET's mission ended that a president of the Court of Appeals was finally chosen, and the Court of Appeals still lacks judges to hear any cases brought before it. UNTAET continued to apply Indonesian law, except if it was found to be in violation of international human rights standards or if UNTAET passed specific legislation changing the situation. In practice, it is often difficult to tell which law to follow. The independent government has inherited this confusing mixture of laws, and the legal framework is very slowly being created.

UNTAET assigned two persons to implement a program on the judicial institution. Their task was to develop a new judicial system. But due to the many problems involved and the lack of staff, the task was not completed. UNTAET treated judicial matters as an emergency task, but it did not make serious efforts to establish a credible legal and judicial system.

UNTAET had legal experts with international status but little practical experience and skills. They did not develop a sustainable legal system because they failed to work together with the East Timorese legal experts. This contradicted UNTAET's mandate as provided in the UN Security Council Resolution 1272, which requires its staff to cooperate and consult with the East Timorese society and to develop the human resources of the country. Some international staff tried to transfer their knowledge to the East Timorese. But without guidelines to follow, the effort was often done in a paternalistic and condescending manner. Such a task should have been done at the level of equals, with international and East Timorese staff sharing experiences together.

Another task that UNTAET failed to accomplish was the handling of the thousands of cases of crimes against humanity that occurred during the last 25 years. Some low-level East Timorese militia members have been held accountable, but the majority of suspects are yet to be tried.3 Those who are most responsible for the atrocities, Indonesian policymakers and high military officials, are now enjoying virtual impunity. While the Truth, Reconciliation and Reception Commission is successful in achieving reconciliation, its high visibility however should not obscure the need for justice to the victims. Justice cannot be realized by East Timor alone. The support of the international community is needed in this task.

UNTAET established a hybrid international-East Timorese court, the Serious Crimes Unit, to try war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in East Timor from 1975-1999. The Unit has not been adequately funded - during substantial periods there have not been enough international and East Timorese judges hired to fill the three-member Special Panels that hear the cases, frustrating plans to have two panels operating at the same time. The Unit has also only been able to try those people residing in East Timor - the UN never put serious pressure on the Indonesian government to extradite Indonesian residents indicted for crimes. This has resulted in a few sentences given to low-level East Timorese militia members, while the Indonesian military generals who are most responsible for planning and orchestrating the destruction of the country enjoy immunity in Indonesia. The Serious Crimes Unit will be ending soon, even though it only had time to brush the surface of crimes committed in 1999 and not even begin to look at incidents before then.

International Staff

UNTAET staff often acted as experts who cannot be questioned. This attitude made them rarely try to listen to the voice of the local population and to learn about their culture, political situation, customs and general socio-economic conditions. Armed with such knowledge, they could have carried out their tasks more effectively. UNTAET also failed to develop among the East Timorese a sense of ownership of the reconstruction process. This condition could have created goodwill and better understanding between the UNTAET staff and the East Timorese. Capacity-building programs for, and participatory planning with, the East Timorese are important in this regard. Training for the UNTAET staff on practical skill such as obtaining local knowledge and resources, on the other hand, could have involved local people (and not just the elite in the East Timorese society).

The international staff's insistence on doing everything by themselves rather than giving the East Timorese staff the opportunity to take part, caused some of the problems of UNTAET. This situation eventually became the main reason why the East Timorese did not feel any sense of ownership of the reconstruction process. For them, this is a repeat of the way programs were carried out by the Indonesian government during the occupation. The local people always felt that they were only objects of the reconstruction process rather than actors determining reconstruction plans.

Conclusion and suggestions

East Timor still needs technical and financial support from the international community to establish education and health programs, and rebuild social, legal and economic infrastructures. We hope that the lessons from the three-year UNTAET experience have been learned by the Republica Democratica de Timor Leste government and the international institutions so that programs will become more efficient, effective and comprehensive. We also hope that they will follow the principle that the local people should determine what programs are needed and how the reconstruction process can be undertaken.

The East Timorese civil society continues to demand that the international community lives up to its responsibility of enabling justice to be realized in East Timor. Two important things should be done: strengthen the judicial system through capacity building for local legal professionals; and build a national legal framework with clear and consistent laws.

In the meantime, the international community and the East Timorese people need to work together to establish an international tribunal to deal with the war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred during the Indonesian occupation, for without justice there is no peace.

Mr. Mericio J. Dos Reis is a researcher at La'o Hamutuk

For further information, please contact La'o Hamutuk, P.O. Box 340, Dili, Timor-Leste, e-mail:;


1. This was undertaken by the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET).

2. Security Council resolution 1272 (25 October 1999)

3. See "Should be done: Justice still Delayed," La'o Hamutuk Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 4,