Trappings of state

By Linda Polman, the author of We Did Nothing: Why the Truth Doesn’t Always Come Out When the UN Goes In (THE GUARDIAN, 31/05/06):

The world’s newest state is balanced on a knife edge. Only months after UN troops wrapped up their nation-building mission in East Timor, President Xanana Gusmao has imposed emergency rule, and an Australian-led peacekeeping force of more than 2,000 has been flown in. Peace talks in Dili are welcome, but they are taking place against a backdrop of continued violence, with fighting raging on between government forces and their mutinous colleagues. A coup remains a real threat.

The outbreak of violence should come as no surprise – UN forces have left East Timor. In the absence of external military stabilisation, most countries emerging from violence will return to it within a few years, no matter what economic aid, advice and other forms of support they receive. Despite this, the order to nation-builders from their financiers, the UN member states, is to make the missions as short, cheap and small as they can, whatever the context.

What is called peacekeeping amounts in practice to nation-building: the makeover of desperately poor countries emerging from devastating conflict into «real» nations. Nation-building has been a UN task since the end of the cold war. The frequency and scale of these missions have steadily risen. During the cold war, the organisation launched a new operation on average once every four years. Since 1989 this has risen to more than once a year.

As a journalist, I have witnessed UN missions in many places. But whether in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Liberia, I never saw the birth or restoration of a «real» country. It was the international trainers and their sidekicks – such as Halliburton, DynCorp or Blackwater – working at breathtaking speed to the set design for a democratic country. They rapidly build a stage on which the new nationals must wander. Day and night, they work their way through their list of props.

In East Timor, the sponsoring of an elected president, ministers and members of parliament who all take seats in freshly painted buildings has proved insufficient. The government consists of freedom fighters dressed as politicians. They claim the moral high ground, but they lack the self-cleansing abilities needed for democratic rule.

Serious doubts about the loyalty of the security forces should have emerged even before the fighting broke out. In its haste to end nation-building programmes, the UN hardly ever screens candidates for the police and the army. Many of the mutineers, who go around looting and burning in East Timor, were rebels before, too. In nation-building operations there is no time to repeat anything, so everyone graduates in the police and military academies.

Elections are scheduled for next year. The current unrest should be seen in that context. Half the leaders are clinging to the power that the other half covets. The government has made some serious mistakes. It neglected the underdeveloped provinces outside the capital. No priority was given to rebuilding the economy. Extreme poverty, especially among young unemployed men, has encouraged the formation of gangs that have taken part in the recent violence. How much time the international community will give the East Timorese to get over their problems this time around remains to be seen. Protecting people against their leaders should be a humanitarian duty – a human right, not a favour.