Weekly Insights and Analysis

In Timor-Leste: Is the National Police Force Ready?

June 19, 2008

By Silas Everett

The United Nations leaked this week that the UN police in Timor-Leste (UNPOL) will hand over responsibility to the national police force (PNTL) by early next year. The government is currently considering the draft proposal ” a seven stage withdrawal which will begin on July 31, 2008 and end with a full handover on May 20, 2009. After that time, 600 UN police officers plan to remain as monitors and backup.

Local media reports indicate, however, that the handover is imminent. UN insiders claim that UNPOL’s gradual withdrawal is not because the national police force wants the UN police to go, but because UN security is needed in other parts of the globe.

In the spring of 2006, shortly after the UN withdrew its police from Timor-Leste in mid-2005, a crisis, stirred by political rivalries, escalated to terrifying proportions: dozens of people died and 15 percent of the country’s population was displaced. Soon, the UN police returned to a total of more than 1600 officers ” the second largest of such missions in the world, which costs member states over USD$150 million a year.

The result of UNPOL’s pending departure is likely to have little immediate impact on public trust of the national police force, and hence their ability to serve and protect. However, the question of their readiness is likely to remain a sensitive one. A country’s police force tends to be a leading indicator of how the state treats its people and how the people cooperate with the state. What is certain is that the UNPOL withdrawal raises a larger question beyond the degree of PNTL readiness: is Timor-Leste ready to break from external interference and assert control over itself?

In assessing whether or not the PNTL is ready to take control from UNPOL, we must examine three assumptions.

The first assumption is that UNPOL has control. Security has improved since UNPOL’s deployment throughout Timor-Leste, but it is not entirely clear that UNPOL has been the decisive factor. A deeper analysis shows that UNPOL is only one of several factors that determine security in the urban capital of Dili and in rural areas.

In Dili, UNPOL presence is ubiquitous and highly visible, especially with their high speed, swerving, metal-grated UNPOL 4x4s. The greater UNPOL presence in Dili is understandable. Dili was the epicenter of the 2006 crisis and by far the hardest hit. One-quarter of Timor Leste’s total population — the majority whom are below the age of 25, earn less than a dollar a day, and have high rates of illiteracy ” live in Dili. Added to this volatile, social mix are political bosses pitted against their arch-rivals; 600 unemployed and demobilized soldiers; 30,000 internally displaced people in transitional shelters; heads of gangs and leaders of organized crime. Despite the frequent grumblings within the PNTL about shortcomings in UNPOL’s public behavior, it seems that most of Dili’s inhabitants appear to feel a bit safer with an UNPOL presence on the street. Today, you can walk the streets of Dili at night and feel safe; a year ago, you could not.

As a senior advisor to the head of government told me, however, that “political parties decide on whether the internally displaced people find permanent shelter; if the parties choose to rally the martial arts groups to fight rivals in the streets, then there will be insecurity.” It seems that the improved security in Dili may actually be a result of a temporary truce between political rivals, rather than improved policing.

UNPOL’s policing authority over Dili is also questionable. When President Ramos Horta was shot and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao narrowly escaped on February 11, other members of the foreign security presence ” Portuguese Police (GNR) and the Australian led International Stabilization Force (ISF) ” brought muscle to back the government’s state of siege. Everyone was surprised when calm followed. The government felt confident enough even to put PNTL under a joint command run by Timor Leste Defence Force (F-FDTL) leadership. In fact, Dili residents would likely support the ongoing role of the GNR, despite some complaints of heavy-handed tactics.

As for more rural areas, UNPOL has de facto turned over day-to-day policing to the PNTL officers.

A second assumption is that when UNPOL leaves, the PNTL will exercise de facto jurisdictional authority. The truth is, UNPOL’s departure is unlikely to actually spark a wholesale shift of responsibility from UNPOL to the PNTL. The UN itself has stated in a news report that the PNTL is “not in a position to fully implement its mandated responsibilities.” PNTL may be able to do a “find” and “replace” function on the mandate UNPOL leaves behind, yet in practice, the PNTL won’t be able to respond to everything that will be demanded of it. The PNTL needs more resources and time for officers to gain their own on-the-job experience before training junior officers. Yet, in the meantime, what remains to be seen is if and how the F-FDTL fills in the gaps.

A third assumption is that UNPOL is capable of preparing the PNTL to fulfill its mandate if it were to stay longer. This is unlikely. A recent UN review of UNPOL concluded that in its current form, UNPOL is not able to make the PNTL stronger. UNPOL brings neither the necessary training skills nor the officer-to-officer mentoring capacity — let alone the requisite language and cultural knowledge. The UN has already started passing around the hat to try to fix these problems. However, UNPOL officers privately cast doubt on whether the problem is something money can fix. Instead, they point to top leadership in UNPOL as the source of the problem.

Human rights abuse is reportedly on the rise within Timor-Leste’s security forces. Observers suggest that the state’s heavy-handedness is borrowed from the Indonesian era. Given the historically autocratic and repressive treatment of Timorese by previous occupiers, is it inevitable that Timor-Leste’s police fall into the same authoritarian line? Last week, a peaceful student demonstration, uninterrupted by the PNTL, convinced the government to back off on a plan to purchase cars for the nation’s 65 parliamentarians. Ensuing negotiations led to a new plan to reduce the number of cars purchased with none of them actually assigned to individual MPs. Readied, in full black riot gear, the PNTL showed composure and a sense of professionalism. It is worth considering that, without the international security presence around, the situation would have been any different?

UNPOL acts as a dampener. Bosnia and Herzegovina still have UN police 16 years later. What makes Timor-Leste different? Most of these points were raised in 2005, months before the 2006 crisis. Many would like to believe that the UN police mission is complete and it’s time for them to draw down. But their absence is likely to make the heart grow fonder.

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


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