UN Test Case alias Peacebuilding in Timor-Leste

How to cite this journal: Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post, ISSN:
2628-6998, https://worldmediation.org/journal/

The establishment of a new state in itself requires a mediator because on the brink of the 21st century there are no undiscovered lands that would provide space for a conflict-free establishment of a new state hence any change in territorial authority will lead to a conflict of interests between states, Timor-Leste is no exception.

Conflict Summary:

The territory of East Timor administered by Portugal had been placed on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly as a Non-Self-Governing Territory in 1960. Portugal withdrew after failing to control a civil war which led to the military invasion by Indonesia, which caused the death of approximately 200,000 people. In 1998 due to financial struggles Indonesia was considering granting limited authority to East Timor. A United Nations (UN)-facilitated referendum, a “popular consultation,” showed that almost 80 per cent of voters rejected integration into Indonesia. In September 1999 a peacekeeping force was sent by the United Nations Security Council to restore stability in Timor-Leste. The stabilization was successful hence a month later, the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) was established.


Timor-Leste, due to the unprecedented situation that there was no existing government, no administrative system, or any state structure according to the western definition of a democratic state, was considered as a “test case” regarding peacebuilding processes. It was the last peacekeeping operation of the century except for the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) and it was one of the most challenging in a way. On the one hand this level of freedom in the hands of the UN gave way to a lot of opportunities because it was a clean slate that the UNTAET could turn into the democratic state that they wished. On the other hand it was also a huge responsibility to handle the situation with at most respect for the locals, who already suffered from the rule of outsiders (Portugal and Indonesia) and the responsibility of preventing any kind of exploitation of the situation. This responsibility and the task of fulfilling its mandate were sitting on the shoulders of Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was the head of this mission.


Mediation under these circumstances meant the management of a smooth establishment of a democratic state structure according to the western standards (communicated by the UN) but with the consent of the (already haggard) locals, in order to avoid sparking any kind of conflict through the enforcement of an undesired regime or system.

The mediator also had to work on the settlement of the relation between Indonesia and East-Timor especially after most of the population of East Timor was affected by the violent invasion of Indonesia and many lives were lost because of the result of the “popular consultation” as well which determined that the population of Timor-Leste desired independence instead of integration into Indonesia. The bases of the positive relationship between the two states were laid down in the Joint Communique between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor.


Here, the UN could also experience the complexity of negotiations and mediation. The UNTAET had to manage the creation and the changes of a new system on every level. The tensions were not just in the diplomatic field and it wasn’t as straightforward as sitting down with two leaders who have a voice and are authorized to speak on behalf of their country and resolve their conflict. In my opinion, it is much easier to discuss the conflict between states that way. In Timor-Leste, the entire population was affected by the fight for independence, and the UNTAET needed to win the people to lead a successful mission. The UNTAET also had to help Timor-Leste find its voice and find it’s leader. It is a unique form of mediation when there is a conflict of interest, there is a need for a mediator but on one side there is half of an island with a country size population but no existing or internationally acknowledged state, and on the other side we see Indonesia as a recent occupier, Portugal as a past occupier and the international community who need to be convinced of the legitimacy of this new creation called Timor-Leste. The UNTAET mission and its members still managed to reach the goal of creating an independent democratic state of Timor-Leste.


A road less traveled: Parliamentary approaches to conflict prevention, reconciliation, and peacebuilding, Annual Parliamentary Hearing, United Nations Headquarters, 6-7 December 2012 available: http://archive.ipu.org/splz-e/unga12/timor.pdf, last visited: 13 May 2020

Constitution of the democratic republic of Timor Leste, 20 May 2002, available: http://timor-leste.gov.tl/?cat=37&lang=en, last visited: 13 May 2020

Joint Communique between the Government of the Republic of Indonesia and the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor signed in Dili on 29 January 2000, available: https://reliefweb.int/report/timor-leste/joint-communiqué-between-republic-indonesia-and-un-transitional-administration, last visited: 13 May 2020

United Nations Security Council resolution 1272 (1999) of 25 October 1999, available: http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/doc/1272, last visited: 13 May 2020

Anna Gazdag

I am a Crisis Manager with special focus on international conflict management.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Charalee Graydon

    Thank you for providing thus UN test case summary.

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