The UN and East Timor: Divided Rule

A new challenge has faced the UN in recent emergencies as the world body has been compelled to take over the running of territory from Kosovo to East Timor. Some have revived the term trusteeship. But in the case of East Timor, plans to decentralise authority were thwarted. Individuals were accused of grabbing power, the UN was less effective and the Timorese suffered.

The World Today Published 1 January 2001 Updated 26 October 2020 5 minute READ

Jarat Chopra

Served as Head of the Office of District Administration, United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor

One of the key experiments of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), was the decentralisation of political authority to district administrators. In the longer term evolution of peace operations in the 1990s, it was accepted that interventions had to achieve a political solution in complex emergencies. Various components – including military security, civilian policing, humanitarian assistance, human rights protection, judicial re-establishment and development coordination – were to be centrally unified and operationally harmonised under civilian command.

The international political authority needed to administer a territory and its population – and not merely its own organisation – if it was to restore a domestic body politic that had collapsed or was contested. The aim of peace- maintenance was the obsolescence of the intervenor and the transfer of power to the indigenous community as soon as possible.

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