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U.N. Intervention Reassessed Since East Timor Violence


The United Nations did consider East Timor a showcase for intervention in a conflict situation, and now the international community is asking what went wrong. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

The United Nations had good reason to be pleased with its East Timor intervention. The peacekeeping troops were able to restore order, and their presence allowed democratic elections to take place. In April 2002, the popular Xanana Gusmao became the tiny nation's first president. The United Nations then began to scale down its mission in East Timor, and the last blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers left in May of last year.

This week, in commenting on the new outbreak of violence in East Timor, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan suggested that the U.N. should have stayed longer.

SECRETARY-GENERAL KOFI ANNAN (Secretary-General, United Nations): Questions have been asked as to why U.N. stays in some operations for a very long time. We've been in Cyprus for ages. We've been in Bosnia, Kosovo. Why do we often try to leave other areas after two or three years? These are issues that I think the council and all of us will have to review.

O'HARA: Louis Aucoin, an associate professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, worked with the U.N. transitional administration in East Timor in 2000. He argues that the situation in East Timor is far different than what the United Nations faced in Cyprus or Kosovo.

Professor LOUIS AUCOIN (Institute for Human Security Associate Professor, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University): The difference in East Timor is that there is no ethnic tension of the nature that you see in Cyprus or in Kosovo. The East Timorese people are much more homogeneous people, and their struggle was really the struggle for independence from Indonesia.

O'HARA: But Aucoin agrees that the U.N. pulled out of East Timor prematurely.

Prof. AUCOIN: By the end of the two years that the United Nations had spent in East Timor, they were very much in a hurry to leave because of the enormous cost of the mission. And yet, I think it was very clear to many people -including myself, who had worked in East Timor - that East Timor was not really ready to face all of the challenges - political, economic, and otherwise that the country would be facing - without really more significant support from the international community.

O'HARA: But James Clad, who worked with The Carter Center in East Timor during the turmoil that began in 1999, says the nation's problems today go far beyond the departure of the U.N. Clad, who's now with the National Defense University, says that the U.N. presence actually disrupted life in East Timor in ways that reverberate today.

Professor JAMES CLAD (National Defense University, Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies): By and large, the real issue was the creation of what is sometimes called a dual economy.

O'HARA: In the countryside, Clad says, poor East Timorese farmers struggled to survive. While in the capital, Dili, the presence of foreign troops and aid workers created a demand for cafes, small hotels, and other services.

Prof. CLAD: When that disappeared, the opportunities for security, translation, houseboys, servants - all the kind of things that go with that sort of portable, first world lifestyle - disappeared as well.

O'HARA: James Clad also suggests that there were real strategic errors in efforts to rebuild East Timor. For instance, returning East Timorese émigrés succeeded in having Portuguese declared the national language, replacing Bahasa or Indonesian.

Prof. CLAD: Which, at one move, eliminated the language of education for two generations. This idea that they could afford these kind of gestures really, I think, added to their burden.

O'HARA: The East Timorese vote to separate from Indonesia meant that young people no longer had guaranteed access to Indonesian universities. It also meant the local population suddenly had to pay for clinics, hospitals, and other services established by the Indonesian government. And their impoverished new government thus far has been unable to fill the gap. The East Timorese had had extremely high expectations of life after independence, and the reality fell far short of their dreams.

Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vicky O'Hara
Victoria (Vicky) O'Hara is a diplomatic correspondent for NPR. Her coverage of the State Department and foreign policy issues can be heard on the award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition as well as on NPR's newscasts.