The United Nations and Peace Building: Lessons from the UN Transitional Administrations in East Timor and Kosovo

By Silander, Daniel | Social Alternatives, Second Quarter 2009 | Go to article overview
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The United Nations and Peace Building: Lessons from the UN Transitional Administrations in East Timor and Kosovo


Silander, Daniel, Social Alternatives


In the post-cold war era the mandate of UN peacekeeping missions expanded to include peace making and nation building. The missions to East Timor and Kosovo represented an even greater expansion in the role and power of UN missions. They were established by resolution of the Security Council, not negotiation with the parties involved. They were given supreme authority to oversee the establishment of viable democratic states. But while the Security Council had agreed that East Timor would become independent, Russian objections prevented a decision on the final status of Kosovo. This had negative consequences for the development of Kosovo demonstrating the difficulties of building a viable democracy before a final status has been agreed.

Within the scope of a few months in 1999, the United Nations (UN) was faced with the international challenge of acting as a transitional administration in both East Timor and Kosovo. Resolution 1272 and 1244 empowered the UN in East Timor and Kosovo to be responsible for all branches of government (Cogen & De Brabandere 2007, 675). This responsibility distinguished the East Timor and Kosovo operations from all previous missions in UN history and symbolised an expanded mandate for UN activities in international politics. The post-Cold War context had offered new challenges to the UN and in 1991 the UN undertook its first governance operation in Cambodia. The agreement on Cambodia included provision for a Supreme National Council of Cambodian representatives with shared authority with the UN Transitional Authority but full UN governance did not happen until 1999 with the East Timor and Kosovo missions.

On October 5 1999, the UN Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1272 authorised the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) to halt the violence stemming from the independence vote. This followed UN SCR 1244, which had established the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The UN exercised supreme authority in East Timor from 1999 to 2002 and in Kosovo from 1999 to 2008, based on the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, to restore international peace and order.

Both East Timor and Kosovo experienced political progress in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of power under UN governance from 1999. This was acknowledged in a growing number of studies on developments in post-conflict societies but most research overlooked the different roadmaps and consequent development for East Timor compared to Kosovo. While East Timor's independence was determined at an early stage as the main objective of the UN transitional administration, Kosovo's final status is still being negotiated. The UN Security Council was divided on the status of Kosovo and diplomatic talks were deadlocked between the EU and US on the one side and Russia on the other. Until this day, Russia has continued to refuse to allow Kosovo sovereignty.

This article stresses one important lesson from the UN missions UNTAET and UNMIK: A final decision on the status of a disputed territory is necessary to see advanced progress in a post-conflict society. The postponement of a final say on Kosovo's future under UNMIK led to a paralysed Kosovo with less developed democratic and economic structures than in East Timor.

United Nations Post-Conflict Governance

During the Cold War, the UN was primarily involved in peacekeeping operations to oversee border disputes, supervise elections and uphold ceasefires. The first generation of UN peace-keeping operations was based on consensus from participating states, with UN peacekeepers only mandated to use force in self-defence. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN has engaged in an increasing number of international peace-keeping missions. As intra-state conflicts rather than inter-state conflicts increased, the UN was faced with a new kind of security challenge. The second generation of UN peace operations became more complex.

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