by Thalif Deen
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations is planning to withdraw its 3,500 peacekeepers from East Timor in May despite calls from the government in Dili and civil society groups that the body's work in the world's newest country is not finished.
"Certainly, the United Nations did not complete its job of readying Timor fully to manage its affairs, and any expertise the government requests should be provided to finish that transition," says John M. Miller, media and outreach coordinator for the East Timor Action Network (ETAN).
Miller, whose group was one of the earliest non-governmental organization (NGOs) to campaign for an independent East Timor, said there are worries about possible plans by neighboring Indonesia, which virtually colonized the territory when it annexed East Timor as its 27th province in 1976.
In May 2002, East Timor became an independent nation after a bloody struggle.
The mandate of the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) expires May 20.
The mission, which was created in May 2002, also has 495 civilian police, 439 international civilian staff and 890 local staff. Its annual budget is about $195 million.
Ambassador Jose Luis Guterres, the permanent representative of East Timor to the United Nations, said his government has formally requested that a battalion of UN peacekeepers -- about 800 soldiers -- remains after the mandate expires.
"We have also requested for UN advisers on finance, police, economics and justice. We need UN assistance to consolidate the process of national reconciliation and for a stable country," he told IPS on Tuesday.
In an interview, Miller warned, "Indonesia seems to be testing East Timor now that the peacekeepers have pulled back from the border areas -- they recently bombed a disputed island to help assert their claim."
"Some strong signal needs to be sent to Indonesia and the remaining militia that Timor must not be pushed around," he added.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters last week, "Obviously, all peacekeeping operations do come to an end at one time or another. What we want to do is to be able to make sure that the gains we have made are not lost when we withdraw."
Annan also said the world body plans to send a team to East Timor to assess the situation. "We will be looking at objective achievements we made to determine how to withdraw, when to withdraw and what sort of follow-up mission will be established in East Timor."
Asked if he envisages the possibility of rioting, such as that which followed the independence referendum in 1999, Annan said, "Honestly, I have not received any reports that the dramatic events and the tragic events that you refer to are likely to be repeated."
The United Nations is "working very hard" to train East Timorese police and security forces, "who will be able to sustain or maintain law and order and the efforts that we have made", he added.
And even if the United Nations decides to withdraw its peacekeepers in May, Annan said, it is quite likely a "follow-up mission" will remain in East Timor to assist the government.
Guterres said Dili did not say how long UN advisers and peacekeepers should remain in the country. "We have left everything to the UN Secretariat and the Security Council to work out the technical details."
"The healing process takes time -- and the presence of the United Nations will help," he added.
In a letter to Annan last year, the Dili-based East Timor Institute for Reconstruction, Monitoring and Analysis warned that the United Nations has not yet finished the task it is mandated to perform.
"East Timor is now politically independent, but dependencies caused by past and current international ineffectiveness still abound," the letter added.
"If the international community intends to keep its promises, an international presence will be needed in East Timor after June 2004."
The letter added, "many in the UN community think of East Timor as one of the organization's great success stories. But if that success is to be more than mere mythology, many adjustments and much work remains to be done."
At a press conference in Dili last month, Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta told reporters he was convinced the United Nations would continue its mandate in some form beyond May.
"The United Nations has invested so much in East Timor that I am convinced they will maintain a visible and credible presence", he said, adding the "conditions of security and peace are still fragile."
The 15-member UN Security Council is expected to meet Feb. 20 to discuss the future of UNMISET.
Along with UNMISET, the United Nations also created a joint UN-East Timorese special court to investigate and indict those accused of committing "'serious crimes" after 1999.
Since the court has very limited powers, more than two-thirds of those who have been indicted have not been prosecuted. As a result, there have been demands for an international criminal tribunal.
Millers said the UN Secretariat is probably agreeable on a short extension as are most members of the Security Council, "although I imagine France, the United States and some others don't want something too big or expensive."
"Everyone I've talked to sees something after May 20, but the exact shape is still being discussed," Miller added.
At the same time some groups are pushing for the creation of an international criminal tribunal to investigate the crimes and human rights violations allegedly committed during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.
The East Timor National Alliance for an International Tribunal, a coalition of mostly local and international NGOs, said in a Jan. 15 letter to the United Nations that the primary responsibility lies with the international community.
"We are, however, disillusioned by the half-hearted support for justice shown thus far, and offer some suggestions for post-UNMISET involvement by the United Nations, which can help end immunity for perpetrators of crimes against our people and against humanity between 1975 and 1999."
East Timor, the alliance said, is a new, small and impoverished nation with a flawed judicial system. "It would be unreasonable and unrealistic to expect our government alone to pursue justice."
"Yet justice must be pursued, holding accountable the masterminds and commanders of atrocities committed against our people during president Suharto regime's brutal invasion and 24-year occupation of our country."
February 12, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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