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U.N.'s Last Chance to Build a Nation

September 17, 2000|David DeVoss | David DeVoss, former Time magazine bureau chief for Southeast Asia, spent this summer working with the U.S. Agency for International Development to foster Timorese journalism

The recent killings of three aid workers on the island of Timor underscore both the United Nations' ideals and limitations. The men hacked to death by pro-Jakarta militia groups had come to the politically divided island to feed refugees held hostage in West Timor, an Indonesian province. Yet, when the militias ran amok last week, the U.N. was helpless to evacuate, much less defend, its own employees or the refugees under their care.

Only a year ago the United Nations celebrated its finest hour by supervising a referendum in which 78.5% of the people of East Timor voted to leave Indonesia and form an independent nation. This remarkable act of democracy in a region defined by brutal authoritarianism was followed by a hellish three weeks. Militiamen armed by the Indonesian military murdered 1,000 people, left 300,000 homeless and destroyed 80% of the infrastructure built over the 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

Responding to the atrocities, the U.N. dispatched a peacekeeping force that quickly pushed the militias across the border into West Timor. It formed the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor and announced a huge rebuilding effort. Today, UNTAET employs 8,000 armed peacekeepers, 1,000 administrators and 2,000 civilian policemen.

For the U.N., Timor's reconstruction is a must-win situation after a string of disasters and near-misses. In 1994, the U.N. ignored evidence of genocide in Rwanda, then abandoned the country when such evidence became irrefutable. A year later in Bosnia, it failed to save 7,000 Muslims under its care when Serb forces captured the town of Srebrenica. In Kosovo, it stopped Serbia's ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars but inadvertently allowed last year's victims to become this year's predators.

Unlike in Africa, there are no marauding warlords or pandemic diseases in Timor. Centuries of hostility make Bosnia ungovernable, but Timor is ethnically homogeneous. In Kosovo, the U.N. must contend with recalcitrant politicians and the remnants of the former communist government. In Timor, which literally was cleansed by fire, a new government can be built from the ground up.

"East Timor is a test of whether the international community can create a stable, democratic country," says Peter W. Galbraith, the former U.S. ambassador to Croatia who heads UNTAET's political department. "Substantial funds are pledged. If the U.N. can't succeed here, it may not be able to succeed anywhere."

Impediments to reconstruction are massive. Chinese entrepreneurs and Indonesian bureaucrats, who dominated the land's economy and government, are gone. The exodus of Indonesian doctors has left 25 East Timorese general practitioners and one surgeon to serve the needs of 700,000 people. Half the population is illiterate, and 85% of women have less than a third-grade education. Three-quarters of rural health clinics are destroyed, along with nearly all the schools. One of the few things still standing is a huge statue of Jesus, erected by Indonesia on the occasion of Pope John Paul II's 1989 visit, which stands on a bluff overlooking Dili, the capital, and faces toward Jakarta, its arms outstretched in supplication.

Early this year, Australia, Portugal, the U.S. and other donor nations pledged $147 million to supplement the basic cost of UNTAET. At a June donor conference in Lisbon, an additional $16 million was budgeted for reconstruction. The money paid for emergency-shelter kits, repairs to 95% of the schools and importation of breed stock to replace cattle butchered by the departing Indonesian army. Charitable nongovernmental organizations and bilateral assistance programs have prevented starvation, provided vaccines, restored mass transportation and brought in enough newsprint to supply Dili's three competing newspapers.

Unfortunately, the most visible results of U.N. spending are the hundreds of sport-utility vehicles clogging Dili's streets, dozens of cafes catering to foreigners with food imported from Australia and the floating Olympia Hotel on Dili's quayside, where bivouacked U.N. employees enjoy a rooftop Thai restaurant and a weekend nightclub.

Incremental additions to the general budget may not cover the generous salaries, free housing, monthly vacations and $109-a-day "mission subsistence allowance" paid to most U.N. employees. Even the U.N.'s chief administrator for East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was hard-pressed to defend some of his organization's business practices when he appeared before the Security Council this summer. "Something is clearly not right if UNTAET can cost $692 million, whereas the complete budget of East Timor is $59 million," he said. "Can it therefore come as a surprise that there is so much criticism of U.N. extravagances while the Timorese continue to suffer?"

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