Center for Strategic Decision Research


UN Operation in East Timor: Lessons Learned

His Excellency Sergio Vieira de Mello
UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor


The UN, EU, and NATO have all gained a great deal of experience over the last decade in the area of crisis management. We have learned many diplomatic, military, and humanitarian lessons from our mistakes. Though the UN and the EU shared the negotiating role throughout the lifetime of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia (ICFY), and though they came close to producing a workable solution in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Croatia, the partnership failed for several reasons.

The main reason may have been that the two organizations were not backed up by a credible force, which resulted in a loss of diplomatic power. The work in Eastern Slovenia, the Erdut Agreement, and the UN operation there are perhaps the only original and successful combination of efforts, which included NATO in a discreet but effective support role.

  • Militarily. Although I am not as critical as many others are of the UN and NATO's ability to work together in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I agree with those who say that the "double key" formula was flawed. Though we succeeded, by and large, in protecting Sarajevo and Gorazde after the North Atlantic Council launched its ultimatums and imposed an exclusion zone (TEZ) around those areas in February and April 1994, the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa in July of the following year was a tragedy that no one involved, certainly not me, is about to forget.
  • On a Humanitarian level. I can point to NATO's support of Albania and Macedonia, with strong EU/ Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) input, as a positive effort.

This is why the post-Kumanovo architecture seems odd but has proved effective. In Kosovo there was one resolution (1244) and two protagonists: NATO through KFOR and the UN through the Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), with the strong involvement of the EU and the OSCE. This model worked well from day one, thanks to the closest possible cooperation and understanding between Mike Jackson and me, as well as between our successors.

But other models have been equally successful and may also be followed in the future: here I refer to the transfer from the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) to the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor Peacekeeping Force (UNTAET PKF). The first resolution (1264) established the Multinational Force (MNF), led by a regional power, with strong international and regional participation (including by NATO countries). The second resolution (1272), which was enacted one and a half months later and created UNTAET, required a transition from INTERFET to the PKF. This happened flawlessly four months later. Thus UNTAET has been, since February 2000, a truly integrated UN operation with all of its components under a single authority. It has full executive and legislative powers, including to administer justice, until independence. Involvement of the U.S. military in the U.S. Support Group East Timor (USGET), which is an interesting experiment, could also be replicated in future UN missions.


Military Lessons. Transitions from one military force to another are rarely easy (as in Somalia) but the shift in East Timor from the Multinational Force to the Peacekeeping Force was flawless. Why? In short, sheer good luck. UNTAET was not equipped to deal with a transition on this scale; the UN provided weak planning. In fact, we were almost entirely dependent on "blue bereted" MNF officers seconded to the UN for its implementation. Cooperation and teamwork were exemplary, but this was more because of the people on the ground than from having in place the procedures and resources to ensure a smooth transition.

Another military lesson learned is the need to adopt effective rules of engagement to the mission in question. We also must consider what role we should accord the military in the maintenance of internal law and order in support of the international civilian police. Finally, a rapid-deployment military capability, which should result from the EU Headline Goal, is something the UN should be able to resort to for future peacekeeping operations.

The Police. There are many problems that can affect the development of a coherent and effective police force, especially one that is entrusted with executive powers: speed of deployment and different nationalities, backgrounds, languages, and policing techniques. In order to address these issues, with the support of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), we are presently testing a "one-country deployment policy" in one district of East Timor.

On the positive side, the EU announced in Feira that it intends to establish a 5,000-person rapid-deployment police capability by 2003 for use with the full range of crisis prevention and management operations. The UN should take advantage of this capability.

Another lesson learned is that police training is a particularly important area: until law and order can be guaranteed by the government, extraction of the international community is not feasible. Police trainers require a specific set of skills. Participants in the EU Summit in Nice in December 2000 agreed that the police must be able to undertake training tasks, and recommended that the UN maintain and develop a policing-capabilities database and prepare certain generic documents, such as Rules of Engagement, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), legal frameworks, etc., as a frame of reference. The importance of the police in crisis management was also evident in the OSCE Summit in Istanbul. Participating states agreed to work to enhance the organization's role in police training, no doubt building on the Kosovo experience.

The Rule of Law. We have learned that the rule of law must be in place from the very start of a UN operation. Included in the rule of law is the establishment of legal templates. The Brahimi Report recommends the creation of a standard legal code, a suggestion that most believe should be carried out quickly. Adopting a territory's previous law (à la Kosovo and East Timor) is not satisfactory. We may also want to consider how feasible it would be to establish similar templates in such key areas as investment, finance, banking, and so on to prevent the unscrupulous exploitation of, or economically damaging delays caused by, any legal vacuum.

The issue of governance may be our greatest weakness, and it needs to be addressed and resolved now by the UN, the EU, the OSCE, and other regional organizations. Of particular importance is developing the capacity to ensure that a peace operation can rapidly deploy the right personnel for the task at hand.

As with the police and the judiciary, establishing current-and relevant-personnel rosters is key. Generalists are not required for missions such as UNTAET, but rather infrastructure experts, customs personnel, health officials, bankers, and economists. Standby arrangements, similar to those that exist for military deployment, should be established with member-states. This would allow for the immediate deployment, at least in the early stages of a mission, of specialized sectoral teams in such government areas as banking, budget development, immigration, civil service recruitment and structuring, customs, airport management, roads, ports, electricity, and so on. The OSCE Rapid Expert and Assistance Cooperation Teams (REACT) program is an interesting initiative in this regard, one I hope that the UN will be able to tap into. Similar arrangements under development by other regional institutions also merit consideration.

In short, we must be able to hit the ground running or we will rapidly lose legitimacy with the populations we came to assist. One colleague who accompanied me to set up the UN mission in Kosovo in 1999 described our arrival, the day after General Mike Jackson went in with colossal force, as being somewhat akin to an under-budgeted high school outing. Such a situation is demoralizing and undermines our authority.

Adequate financial and material resources are needed to implement our mandate. The problems posed by the United Nations' complicated, even Byzantine, rules and regulations are well-traversed territory that I shall not go over. Suffice it to say that the administrative structures that were established for traditional peacekeeping operations are not necessarily well tailored for the latest generation of mandates, as seen in Kosovo and East Timor.

A further issue to examine is when and how to devolve authority and governmental responsibility onto national representative institutions. In East Timor, a shift was quickly made from delaying the political transition until after the elections to politicizing the administration through the establishment of a proto-legislature and cabinet. In general, it is desirable to delegate executive, legislative, and judicial responsibility to nationals (while retaining ultimate authority) as soon as possible, so we are not perceived in-country as a neo-colonial administration replacing the one that went before. We have done this type of delegating since July 2000 and will accelerate the process after the elections in August 2001.

Post-Mission Planning. We have learned that post-mission planning is crucial. This is obviously easier to accomplish in East Timor, where the end game is clearer, than in Kosovo, whose future is less certain. UNTAET's mandate requires that the UN bring more than political independence to East Timor (this could be granted overnight); it also requires that we bring true independence to the country, including an effective administration, developed civil and social services, established conditions for sustainable development, and so on. This, however, will not be done within the lifetime of UNTAET, not nearly.

Without continued assistance to East Timor to further its independence, the new state will struggle in many areas and threaten the work that has been accomplished. This fact highlights the critical importance of placing crisis management in its proper context, as only a part of a continuum of assistance carefully calibrated to the needs on the ground. Crisis management should not be viewed in isolation.


Currently we have a number of variable configurations or architectures for responding to different crises, depending on their precise nature or geopolitical context. These capabilities are available through the United Nations, the EU, the OSCE, NATO, and other regional organizations. But our challenge is to remain ready for any crisis, and to continue our work to improve our preparedness for them all. The Security Council is unlikely to provide us with an instruction manual. But there can be no more improvisation, as there has been all too often in the past. As Rupert Smith said, we need to establish and develop a "common nervous system" that can be activated at short notice and that can easily be shaped to the needs on the ground. Such a system would incorporate not just the military and the police, but the governance components of future complex operations.


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