After thirteen years, the UN peacekeepers are leaving East Timor. Their job is done; peace has found its way again to the small country and seems to have taken firm root. Sadly, this is far from always the case after a peacekeeping mission – what made East Timor such a success?
East Timor, 20th of September 1999. After a referendum, resulting in a 78% vote for independence from Indonesia, violence erupted on the streets. Pro-Indonesia militia, organized and supported by the Indonesian Army, retaliated on the East-Timorese by killing approximately 1,400, displacing 500,000 and destroying most of the infrastructure, including homes, schools, irrigation systems and the entire power grid .
The international community responded rapidly; after sixteen days an Australian-led UN intervention force landed in Dili, the regional capital. The reason for this relatively quick intervention is because the UN organized the very referendum that triggered the violence. A massacre by the Indonesian Army in 1991 led to great international upheaval and lasting pressure, eventually resulting in the referendum where East Timorese casted their votes. Because the UN had already projects in place and the international community was familiar with the region, it was able to quickly deploy an intervention force and put an end to the violence.
Another important factor are the strong historical ties Portugal and Australia had with East Timor – the former once a colonizer and the latter once an ally in WWII – both with electorates that supported aiding the East Timorese. They were therefore able to take the lead and have played an active role in the peacekeeping mission until its ending.
Most of the perpetrators of the violence fled the country as soon as the UN troops landed, leaving a country in ruins, but a population committed to peace and restoration. The population is ethnically relatively homogenous and almost entirely Roman-Catholic (98%, a remainder of the colonial period). With only 1,1 million inhabitants and lots of fertile land, there were very little grounds for tensions among the people of East Timor.
The first objective was to stop the violence and restore order. After this was quickly established thanks to the 5,500 UN troops, the UN mission was able to focus on rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and the creation of state institutions. Now, East Timor has its own fully functioning police force, has a democratically elected government and an active parliament, a decreasing illiteracy rate and although it is still ranked 134th on the Human Development Index, it has been able to maintain a growth in GDP of over 11% in the past three years. Its biggest challenge will be to decrease the economy’s reliance on natural gas production and keep on creating jobs for the young ones entering the labor force.
Of course, East Timor is not there yet, but it is definitely heading in the right direction. The UN will remain active with several projects in the country, but there is no need any more for a peacekeeping force. Can other or future peacekeeping missions learn from this success story? Perhaps. The conditions in East Timor were very suitable for peace. East Congo or Darfur for example do not have these desired conditions, they are too fast and have too many actors fighting for power. But for other territories, with different circumstances, there might be a fruitful lesson in peacekeeping here. A lesson the East Timorese surely are happy to be.