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Note on the Proposed UN Mission Debate

By Australian analyst and former diplomat James Dunn
former UNTAET adviser and Expert on Crimes against Humanity

22 August 2006

The Security Councilís decision on the new mission for Timor-Leste has evidently been delayed, largely thanks to Australiaís insistence that the predominantly Australian military force now in Dili remain separate, and under Australian command. The US and its leading Asian ally, Japan, strongly supported the Australian position, with some help from the UK. All other delegates backed the Secretary-Generalís view that the mission should be under UN authority.

The Australian proposal is not, however, in Timor-Leste's interests. There is no good reason why our military force, which will be modest in size, should not come under UN authority, not least because an Australian officer is likely to be chosen as PKF commander. Helping Timor-Leste overcome its present problems is essentially an international concern, and should therefore be addressed accordingly. It is important that the international presence not be configured in such a way as to diminish Timor-Leste's standing as an independent state. The Australian proposal has already raised suggestions that the new nation will become a client state, one whose future is dependent on support from Canberra.

There is nothing in our militaryís past experience in Timor to justify a green helmet operation. UNTAETís PKF, in which Australian troops were the largest contingent, performed its role effectively. For our force to demand a separate status at this time will also be perceived as a slight to the Urn's role, a slight that it does not deserve. In the event the role of the military in the new mission is less important than that of the international police component. Dealing with those responsible for the current wave of violence is essentially a police responsibility. It is interesting to note that the regionís major contributors, Japan aside, have supported Kofi Annanís call for an integrated UN mission. Meeting Australiaís request could also be interpreted as a hint that the UN should not be given full authority for dealing with a problem that it itself bears some responsibility for. However, the UN is not really responsible for the past failures behind the present crisis. True, the mandate was of too short duration, but the brevity of its mission was largely the outcome of pressures from the major donors, and from the Timorese leaders themselves, for an early end to the mission. In one of our last conversations on this aspect, Sergio Vieira de Mello was clearly concerned about this aspect.

It is difficult to understand, let alone sympathize, with the Australian position. The fact that Timor-Leste covers a rather small area underlines the need for an integrated UN mission. Some will see Australiaís position as reflecting that of the United States which refuses to place its forces under UN command. Such a stand represents an arrogant denial, if not an undermining, of the Urn's authority under the Charter, and it should not be accommodated.

Originally written as a private email to UN officials, and published with the permission of the author.

La'o Hamutuk page on establishing UNMIT Mission in Timor-Leste