Peacebuilding, State Building, and Nation Building in Timor-Leste: Challenges to International Assistance


February 13, 2009: Dr. Atul Khare

Peacebuilding, State Building, and Nation Building in Timor-Leste: Challenges to International Assistance


(Washington D.C.) February 13– Despite Timor-Leste’s tumultuous past, recent efforts by the Timorese government, with the assistance of the international community, have increased stability and progress in the developing nation. In a seminar sponsored by the East-West Center in Washington and the International Republican Institute, Dr. Atul Khare, Special Representative of the Secretary General for Timor-Leste (SRSG) and head of United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), described the current status of development efforts in Timor-Leste and detailed the challenges that the international community will face as it continues to assist Timor-Leste.


During the past two years, assassination attempts on Timor-Leste’s prime minister and president, as well as conflict between the military and the police, prompted an increase in the number of foreign peacekeepers in the country and the creation of the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT). Since that time, Timor-Leste, with the assistance of the UN, has made great progress by returning displaced people, increasing the security and political stability of the country, supporting weapons reclamation programs, and developing its human rights commitments.


Despite these improvements, Dr. Khare argued that Timor-Leste still needs the assistance of the international community. At this critical juncture, he explained, support is needed to continue the positive trends in the country as it moves toward a secure and stable democracy. The UN remains committed to creating a country that supports the rule of law, provides security for its people, develops its economy and human capital, and works toward the creation of a unified people. Dr. Khare explained that the goal is to create a government that can both govern and control itself and one that is as effective in times of crisis as in times of peace.


Supporting a developing nation such as Timor-Leste, however, offers numerous challenges to the international community. Dr. Khare explained that it is often difficult to determine how long international assistance should remain in a country, noting that staying too long holds as many risks as staying too short a time. He explained that it is important to finely tune the impact of international assistance on Timor-Leste, making sure that the country does not become too dependent on, or resentful of, outside support. Further, it is important that the international community encourages the participation of all facets of the Timorese population, allowing the people to feel involved in the new nation as it develops.


Another important concern is that of universal values versus local values. The United Nations supports a certain set of universal values, but recognizes that each country must implement those values in a way that best suits its own culture. Dr. Khare explained that this process can be sometimes difficult in countries such as Timor-Leste that have a history of colonization and instability, as the new nation will be in the process of developing its own identity through a reexamination of its history and culture.


Dr. Khare noted that these and other challenges continue to be dilemmas to the United Nations: there are no easy solutions. But the international community must always try to find ways to best serve the people of Timor-Leste by considering these problems as it does its work in the country. He recommended particular approaches for Timor-Leste. First, he argued that it is important not to create islands of excellence, such as developing a high-quality police force while neglecting the army. Instead, where possible, efforts should be made to develop the society as a whole to avoid conflict and confusion. Second, he noted that the size of a country has nothing to do with the speed at which progress will occur. Dr. Khare explained that though Timor-Leste is a small nation, the complexities of its people and the problems that it faces are as developed as those of a larger country, so patience and dedication are required.


Finally, Dr. Khare explained his three-step plan for Timor-Leste: encourage the government to make the right decisions at the right time, motivate the government to implement priority items, and facilitate with capacity development. The international community, he argued, wants only the best for this country, but it is not the international community’s country. It is Timor-Leste’s country and it must develop in the way that is best for the people of that nation. The international community can only do its best to help Timor-Leste move along the path it is laying for itself.


Special Representative of the Secretary General for Timor-Leste (SRSG) Atul Khare has been the Head of United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) since December 2006. Previously, Mr. Khare served with the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) from June 2002 until its completion in May 2005, first as Chief of Staff and later as then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Deputy Special Representative. The UN has provided support to Timor-Leste since the referendum on independence in 1999, with current Mission objectives “to support the Government in consolidating stability, enhancing a culture of democratic governance, and facilitating political dialogue among Timorese stakeholders, in their efforts to bring about a process of national reconciliation and to foster social cohesion.” The UN Security Council has extended UNMIT’s mandate until February 26, 2009.