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United Nation’s Police Withdrawal from Timor-Leste: A Graceful Exit?

March 25, 2009

The United Nations police (UNPOL) will soon relinquish its lead in patrolling Timor-Leste to the national police force, Policia National Timor-Leste (PNTL). Last month, the Government of Timor-Leste and the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) officially decided that PNTL would resume policing responsibilities and called for a “gradual and phased approach – district-by-district and unit-by-unit in accordance with mutually-agreed and clearly-defined criteria.”

Mr. Xanana Gusmao, Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, added that the first phase of the handover would be held in the districts of Alieu, Lautem, Manatuto, and Ainaro, pending evaluation by a joint technical team of government and UNMIT representatives.

History shows that the process may not be easy. In the past, the UN has had difficulty handing over executive policing authority in Timor-Leste. In 2005, UNPOL’s handover had left a few remaining UN officers behind, when the 2006 crisis broke out. Spurred by political opponents, factions within the PNTL and the National Defense Force (F-FDTL) battled each other. Tragically, eight PNTL officers were shot and killed (one other died later) beneath the United Nation’s flag. These events prompted the full return of the UN police and mobilization of an Australian-led International Stabilization Force. During two months of violence in 2006, 150,000 were displaced. This was a major setback for the country. Almost three years later Timor-Leste is still recovering.

What has been learned? UNMIT and the government plan to base the district-by-district handovers on a set of four criteria, which – on the surface – appear straightforward. However, on closer inspection the criteria raise questions: Will UNPOL play a supportive role to ensure that the PNTL get the hardware they need to perform necessary operational and logistical functions? Will the certification process strengthen professionalism within the PNTL by making sure the few corrupt officials see prison time? Will the parliament ratify the Supplementary Policing Agreement to provide UNPOL the legal recognition for wielding executive policing authority?

Here is a list of the criteria being considered for the handover:

Criterion # 1: the ability of the PNTL to respond appropriately to the security environment in a given district.

This makes sense. If the PNTL can’t respond to security issues, then what good will the handover do? Yet, security in Timor-Leste has been characterized by long periods of stability and short periods of unrest. The very presence of UNPOL may dampen the potential for a spike in a latent conflict. When times are good, the PNTL’s response may look sufficient, if not more culturally appropriate than Western policing models. But what if, when the handover occurs, UNPOL monitors for a bit, then draws down, and crisis breaks out? It’s anyone’s guess what the PNTL’s response to large-scale social unrest might look like.

A recent Asia Foundation survey revealed that citizens rarely have contact with the PNTL. This is not necessarily a bad thing at this point. Timor-Leste’s violent crime rates are low and citizens hold community leaders responsible for security, rarely the PNTL. Murder and serious assault cases are the exception. The Foundation’s recent research shows that citizens prefer restorative measures for most disputes. Yet with murder, citizens prefer punitive measures – this is when the PNTL are sought directly. Bearing in mind that serious crimes have been decreasing since the 2006 crisis, murder cases are uncommon and thus make poor markers for judging the PNTL’s response. Besides, the effectiveness of the PNTL is tied to the ability of courts to adjudicate cases in a timely and effective manner. Bottlenecks in the justice system thwart PNTL’s ability to assist. Without stronger linkages between the community, the PNTL, and the formal justice system, it will be hard to tell when the PNTL is being appropriately responsive or just merely coping with an imperfect situation.

Criterion # 2: “final certification of at least 80 percent of eligible PNTL officers in a given district or unit is required before handover”.

In the aftermath of the 2006 crisis, UNMIT initiated a certification program for the PNTL, to make it a transparent, accountable, and responsible institution, honoring the country’s legal framework and respecting human rights. However, concerns over the effectiveness of the certification process culminated in those raised by the UNMIT Human Rights Report released in 2008 that the PNTL Evaluation Board, the Timorese-led body responsible for certification, had not issued any dismissals based on past human rights violations or criminal conduct, despite pleading from UNMIT on a number of cases. In fact, to date, while 95 percent of the PNTL have passed certification, no PNTL member has served a sentence for criminal misconduct, despite well-documented involvement of PNTL officers in the 2006 crisis. Will the 80 percent certification requirement of PNTL in a district have meaning in real terms, when what is needed is to weed out a few bad apples?

Criterion #3: availability of initial operational logistical requirements.

The PNTL lack resources to reach areas outside of the district centers to the point where some district PNTL commanders have no choice but to walk on foot, which may be welcomed by bird watchers and community-policing enthusiasts, but the net result is poor operations. Outside of Dili and a few of the district centers, instead of radios, the PNTL officers use prepaid mobile phone cards on their own phones. This may seem like another case of technological leapfrogging, but mobile phones don’t access all parts of the district, nor is the public-private telecommunications monopoly likely to provide expanded access in the near future. With 20 times less spending per officer than UNPOL, the PNTL will invariably continue to be frustrated by UNPOL’s critiques of its operations. No doubt that the lack of resources in the PNTL is a barrier to performance, but not addressing the obvious may mean further stymied cooperation between UNPOL and PNTL.

Criterion #4: institutional stability, which includes, inter alia, the ability to exercise command and control, to comply with human rights principles and operate with full community acceptance.

UNPOL’s own control over the PNTL to ensure the handover criteria are abided by is currently in question. The Supplementary Policing Agreement, between the government of Timor-Leste and the United Nations, was to provide UNPOL executive policing authority until the PNTL was reconstituted. However, a recent Court of Appeal decision found that because the Supplementary Agreement was not ratified by parliament, the UNPOL commissioner did not have the legal power to suspend a PNTL District Commander. Whether this ruling sets a precedent is more uncertain in a civil law than in a common law system. It might not be such a bad thing if UNPOL is a paper tiger at the end of the day, but, if so, it does undermine the utility of the given criteria.

On the ground, relations between PNTL and UNPOL vary. When together in public, UNPOL and PNTL officers often resemble awkward guests at a cocktail party – shy to acknowledge each other. Ride-alongs are rare and face-to-face mentoring even rarer. More worrisome are tensions between the PNTL and UNPOL. Portugal’s contingent, Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR), in one recent conflagration with the PNTL, even brought the attention of the prime minister. According to Lusa newswire, one government official was quoted as saying: “Timor-Leste was a sovereign country and was not reined in by Portugal, which was why the GNR police should respect the existing human rights convention in the country.” Compared to UNPOL’s public relations challenges, the problem with the PNTL is its lack of contact with citizens, not lack of respect from them. In fact, public confidence in the PNTL has remained high despite the 2006 Crisis.

The bottom line is that those interested will be tuned in to the Government Palace on March 27, when details of the transition plan are expected to be released to public. This coincides with the nine-year anniversary of the PNTL and the swearing in of Mr. Longinus Montero as the new PNTL general commander, who will step down as attorney general to take up his new position.

Technical criteria for handover may partly address the PNTL’s readiness to resume authority. Yet political calculations and the UN’s own internal institutional pressures are likely to prove more important to the handover’s ultimate success. It won’t be surprising if the official burden of proof rests on the shoulders of the PNTL. Most criteria are likely to be swayed by political currents anyway. This only supports the need for a more sound analysis of UNPOL and PNTL. This requires casting a wider net. The belated “comprehensive review of the future role and needs of the security sector,” as specified by Security Council Resolution 1704 in 2006, could serve as such, if taken seriously, and if it goes beyond facts and figures.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at severett@asiafound.org.

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