For UN and East Timor, a Chance to Start Over

Article excerpt

Constancio Pinto learned his hardest lesson in foreign affairs long before he started graduate studies in international relations here in the US. After Indonesian troops killed some 200 peaceful demonstrators in his hometown of Dili, East Timor, in November 1991, he expected the world to jump to his people's aid.

"We thought a peacekeeping force would come days after the massacre," he recalls. "After three days, we didn't hear anything.... People were so disappointed with the UN at that time."

Eight years later, Mr. Pinto will finally see blue helmets in East Timor. The United Nations is drawing up plans for its troops to replace a multinational force led by Australia, which is anxious to leave and cut its expenses.

Both East Timor and the UN have the opportunity to extricate themselves from a difficult period. After East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence Aug. 30, pro-Indonesia militiamen terrorized the territory, sending hundreds of thousands of people running from their homes.

Last week, Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined his ambitious proposals for the world body to take full control - of both the civil administration and defense - on the tiny half island. The Security Council is expected to sanction this broad mandate this month, including a proposed 9,000-strong force that may arrive in December, a quarter century after Indonesia invaded the territory.

Critics say that Mr. Annan naively accepted Jakarta's promises to ensure security, despite reports alleging the Indonesian army's complicity in violence against East Timorese during the months leading up to the UN-run referendum. Annan contends that he had no choice because Indonesia had sovereignty.

The debate comes in a particularly difficult year for the world body. It is charged with promoting international peace and security. Yet its peacekeeping force has dwindled to some 13,000 from a 1993 high of 80,000, even as the number of conflicts has grown in the same period. And it took a back seat to NATO in Kosovo.

Now East Timor symbolizes a possible turning point. It will be one of several new missions. Blue helmets are expected to replace regional forces in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Ethiopia and Eritrea. The organization has already taken over the reconstruction of a charred Kosovo, creating from scratch a judiciary, a police force, and virtually all the trappings of a civil society.

Enforcing peace

But while NATO enforces peace in Kosovo, UN peacekeepers will assume that responsibility in East Timor. Indeed, East Timor's reconstruction, estimated to cost more than $500 million in the first year, would be the world body's biggest operation since the $1.6 billion effort in Cambodia seven years ago. It oversaw a Vietnamese pullout, ran elections that steered Cambodia toward democracy, sent in 16,000 troops, and created a transitional government.

It is not surprising that peacekeeping is on the upswing after 1994's disaster in Somalia forced a decline, says David Malone, the president of the New York-based International Peace Academy and a former Canadian diplomat to the UN. "Having tried to do without them, there's been a realization that there's no alternative."

Just how long UN peacekeeping remains on an upswing may depend on its performance in East Timor. Soldiers in blue helmets will have to deal with militiamen who are believed to be regrouping and preparing for another offensive.

Bernard Miyet, the peacekeeping department's chief, says many soldiers from the multinational force will be transferred to the UN mission. But the Australian force will be significantly reduced, and there will be a greater proportion of Asian soldiers in order to allay political concerns. Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove may be replaced by an Asian chief.

Increasing the proportion of Asian troops will likely make the UN force more averse to risk, as Asian nations have historically objected to proactive UN military forces. …