Green Hat, Blue Hat


The United Nations has deferred until 25 October a decision on whether East Timor will have a fully integrated UN mission with military components included, or one where Australia takes the lead military role, separate from the UN mission, with its own national command structure.

The decision has been the subject of heated discussion within the United Nations, with Australian representatives waging a concerted campaign for the latter. Australia has the support of the US, UK and Japan, and has managed to persuade East Timor to get on board, but others remain unconvinced with Brazil going so far as to call Australia’s intended role in East Timor a ‘neo-trusteeship.’



Yet despite the misgivings of Brazil, Malaysia, Portugal and New Zealand, it seems more than likely that Australia will succeed in getting its way.

Reports from the East Timorese NGO Lao Hamutuk that East Timorese Prime Minister José Ramos Horta backed down from his support for the UN fully integrated mission after pressure from Japan (Chair of the UN core group on East Timor) have contributed to views that Australia and its allies are attempting to reduce the role of the UN in East Timor.

A Japanese mission official in New York stated Japan’s position very clearly. He told me that East Timor needs an ‘over the horizon’-type force available only in emergencies and that it is only logical Australia be the lead player in East Timor, with its troops already on the ground. Because the security situation in East Timor is relatively stable, he said, there is no need for a UN military presence.

Japan argues that peacekeeping resources are limited, and the trend of combining the UN with other regional actors is a very good strategy one that reflects the future of UN operations worldwide, according to the official. He added that Japan sees Australia, the US and the UK as ‘likeminded’ partners. (Japan, of course, is not just a good US and Australian ally, but is also one involved in a tussle for a permanent Security Council seat aggravating its neighbour China and is this month rotating Chair of the Security Council.)

The reality is that Ramos Horta probably had no option but to agree to the Australian/Japanese position, as the future of East Timor is more obviously aligned to accommodation with the Australian position than not. It is hard to argue against Australian troops being the lead military player in the country that is decidedly in our sphere of influence.

The politics behind this decision more likely reflects the tug of war between US and Chinese aspirations in the Asia Pacific than any real disagreement between other member nations. Many issues, from Darfur to Iran, have divided UN member countries into those supporting the US and its allies and those supporting the emerging power. An interesting profile of Beijing’s Ambassador to the UN, Wang Guangya, in last month’s New York Times Magazine detailed the fight within the organisation with much candour, citing Darfur and Lebanon as just two issues that have seen China try and flex its muscles.

East Timor is no different, simply a smaller example of the larger tussle on the world diplomatic stage. China has cultivated business and aid relations with East Timor, as it has with many Pacific States, and it may be suspicious of a larger role for Australia there.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

But geopolitics and defence rationale aside, the more important question lies with the dangers of Australia being seen to ignore the plight of the East Timorese. The question that needs to be asked is: what is the benefit to East Timor of Australia taking the lead military position?

Australia has headed an international mission that has not been able to stop violence in a small, poor country. Rebel leader Alfredo Reinado and his band of merry followers (numbering over 50) have escaped from jail and the Australia troops can’t find them. There are cynical politics at play when Australian troops, international police and local politicians can’t find 50 escaped criminals in a country the size of East Timor while journalists can.

The Australian and international police presence has done little to reassure the East Timorese people that their ongoing security is a priority. Thousands are still living in refugee camps and are afraid to go home because of ongoing violence. It needs to be asked how the UN police budget (which is to be spent on training local police) and Australian troop wages can be justified when security personnel are seen as I have witnessed personally sitting idly by while small pockets of individuals create more disturbances.

At danger is the reputation of Australian troops within East Timor. If the troops are not there to ‘protect’ East Timorese, then distrust is sure to grow not between the political elites of each country, who are aware of the necessity of the relationship, but between the average East Timorese and the Australian soldier. An obvious question is whether this is a desirable template for our new relationship with the region.

Several incidents involving Australian personnel in East Timor haven’t helped the situation on the ground. Rui Manuel, an employee of the World Bank, wrote to Australian commander Brigadier Mick Slater on 10 July to complain about two instances where he was rudely abused first, attempting to deliver food to a cousin at the airport, and second simply driving home one night. Indignant over complaints by other East Timorese he wrote:

I am writing to you to express my deep concern over the Australian soldiers who behaved unprofessionally which is a far cry from what has been written in the pamphlets distributed to community as being ‘Australian friendly security guardians’ in Timor Leste I would like to call for your kindly attention so that the Australian Force will be able to gain a privilege and respect from our people as being the safe guardian in our country which had been humiliated and oppressed in its dignity for 24 years.

This came on top of an incident that caused much fury in Timor the strip-search of an East Timorese policeman by an Australian Federal policeman, an action that East Timor Parliamentary President Francisco Gutteres called ‘an abuse of East Timor’s rights as an independent country.’ Leadership is required in East Timor that reflects the importance of real relations between neighbours not colonial attitudes reminiscent of an earlier age.

On the other hand, what has the UN done to ensure the safety of ordinary East Timorese? The UN mandate still maintains that it is the protection of UN property not the protection of the East Timorese that is its main concern in times of crisis. Rwanda showed just how ineffective the UN is in times of unrelenting violence. In East Timor, in 1999, UN and international personnel left D
ili on planes as locals huddled in the hills with militia roaming the streets.

The discussion over whether the UN or Australia should run the military component is academic: Australia clearly wants East Timor as a military partner and will likely achieve its goal. But is this Australian regional protection or Australian regional projection? That an Australian-led military mission is in the best long term interests of the East Timorese is a convincing and rational argument. But the rhetoric has to be grounded in a reality that inspires trust.

To win the support of the ordinary East Timorese, the Australian Government needs to persuade them that Australia cares about their lot. This is the message that people understand, even when geopolitics is the uncomfortable bed on which a new nation is made.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.